A petition filed this week with Israel’s Supreme Court alleges bias against the Reform movement in the Religious Affairs Ministry’s funding of Jewish cultural programs.
The case “represents a milestone in the history of religious pluralism in Israel,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the Religious Action Center of Israel, which filed the petition on behalf of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.
About six months ago, the Progressive Movement applied for 120,000 shekels, the equivalent of about $40,000, for its Jewish cultural programs for new immigrants as well as its “informal education” programs, such as Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes and youth movements.
Since then it has received no funding and no explanation for the lack of funding. The movement suspects discrimination because it is a non-Orthodox institution, said attorney Anat Ben-Dor.
“We believe it is because our religious denomination is unpopular in the ministry,” she said.
Ministry spokesmen could not be reached for comment on the petition’s allegations.
Ben-Dor said it is difficult to protest discrimination because there is no public access to information on the ministry’s budget and allocations.
The secrecy precludes public criticism of the ministry’s administration of public funds and also prevents applicants and the public from being able to identify discrimination, she said.
Regev thinks that of tens of millions of shekels in question, non-Orthodox institutions receive “almost none.”
‘SPECIAL ALLOCATIONS’ OBTAINED
The petition calls for funding criteria to be applied fairly to the Progressive Movement’s request.
It also asks that a list of all institutions receiving money for Jewish cultural education be published and that the money the movement requested be set aside so that funds will be available if the court rules in its favor.
The court did, in fact, issue an interim ruling this week in favor of setting aside the funds.
The battle for fair funding is not new to the Religious Action Center for Israel.
In 1990, its lawyers filed a petition against the system of government budget allocations then in place to “politically linked organizations, particularly Orthodox and haredi (ardently Orthodox) institutions.”
That system, said attorney Ben-Dor, enabled Knesset members to lobby for and get “special allocations” for their institutions during Knesset budget debates.
In effect, that meant the institutions connected to well-placed political parties benefited financially, said Ben-Dor.
“Haredi (cultural) education was growing and growing and growing on state funds and resulting in discrimination against any alternative education,” she said.
But the system was changed following the petition and a public outcry, said Ben-Dor.
Every government ministry was given a lump sum to subsidize private institutions on the basis of standard funding criteria that were to be established and published by each ministry.
The new criteria went into effect two years ago.
The first year, 1992, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism received its first allocation, 34,000 shekels, or roughly $11,000.
WORLD JEWRY ‘AWAKENING’ TO PROBLEM
But the request for 1993 has gone unheeded, while “we have read that other (Orthodox) schools have gotten their funding in this cycle,” said Ben-Dor.
Meanwhile, said Regev of the Religious Action Center, “we have grave doubts as to whether the criteria are in compliance with the law by being objective and universal.”
Regev thinks the funding requirements “exclude newcomers and benefit, with the bulk of the funding, those treated with favoritism in the past.”
For instance, the criteria require the institutional applicant to have a host of locations and thousands of students.
These criteria can only apply to well-established, usually Orthodox institutions, said Ben-Dor.
Regev said the case reflects the recent mobilization by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel in the fight for pluralism and equality.
“At the same time,” he said, “we’re seeing an awakening on the part of world Jewry” to the challenges the movements face in Israel.
Until very recently, “the issue has been dormant, and even our own Reform Movement has paid only lip service to it,” he said.
The Religious Action Center also has a petition pending on behalf of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s academic institution, calling for funding on a par with yeshivot. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 5.
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