Israel cuts seminary funds, angers ultra-Orthodox Jews

Wed Feb 5, 2014 6:37am EST
 
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By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's Finance Ministry said on Wednesday it was cutting funds to seminary students exempt from compulsory military service, in the latest battle between the Jewish state's secular majority and an ultra-Orthodox minority.

Seminary students, many of whom rely on state stipends, have for decades been excused from army service under blanket exemptions that have long stoked resentment in a country whose other Jewish citizens are called to duty at the age of 18.

The issue is at the heart of an emotional national debate.

"If you do not take on the duties, then why are you asking to get the privileges?" said Finance Minister Yair Lapid on Army Radio in an admonition to ultra-Orthodox Jews after halting the funding in line with a ruling from Israel's Supreme Court.

The court ordered the government on Tuesday to stop paying stipends to some seminary students, infuriating ultra-Orthodox community leaders who noted that in the absence of a new law, deferrals were still being issued by the Defense Ministry.

The ruling from the Supreme Court, which in 2012 struck down a "service deferral law", demonstrated its dissatisfaction with foot-dragging in parliament over passage of new legislation that would open the way for wider enlistment of ultra-Orthodox men.

Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews, or "Haredim" - a Hebrew term meaning "those who tremble before God" - say the study of holy scriptures is a foundation of Jewish life and that scholars have a right to devote themselves full time to the tradition.

"The Supreme Court has declared war on us and we will wage war back on it," Haredi lawmaker Moshe Gafni told Army Radio. "He who studies Torah will continue to study Torah even if he is thrown in jail or if his funding is stopped."   Continued...

 
Israel's Finance Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a joint news conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, Energy Minister Silvan Shalom and (not pirctured) in Jerusalem June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner