Israel treasury suspends yeshiva inspections over ultra-Orthodox protests

Finance Ministry suspended inspections of state-funded yeshivas five months ago; ultra-Orthodox protested inspectors refusing to wait until lesson was over, insisting on counting students immediately.

Haaretz, Israel/December 6, 2011

The Finance Ministry suspended all inspection of state-funded yeshivas five months ago at the instruction of its auditor general.

The inspection was halted following vehement protests by ultra-Orthodox ministers and Knesset members over an incident in which inspectors interrupted a lesson in a yeshiva in June, and has not been resumed since.

The Finance Ministry confirmed no inspection was being conducted on allocating funds to yeshivas and Torah institutions, but said inspection will be resumed "in a new and better format" in the coming year.

In a special Knesset plenum debate in July, MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) demanded stopping the yeshiva inspection completely until clear procedures were set to carry it out.

Gafni requested the debate after inspectors who visited the Beit Shmaya yeshiva in Bnei Brak refused to wait until the yeshiva head's lesson was over, and insisted on counting the students immediately. The prime minister, Knesset speaker and finance minister were among the politicians who denounced the incident.

Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva heads held an emergency session, ultra-Orthodox newspapers wrote about the incident on their front pages and editorials and senior rabbis castigated it. The leader of the ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian community, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, called the incident "persecuting the Torah and its students."

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and the Finance Ministry's accountant general Michal Abadi-Boiangiu apologized in person to the Bnei Brak yeshiva's head, and Abadi ordered the suspension of all inspection for a few days to draw conclusions from the event. The inspections have not been resumed since.

Since 2005 the treasury's accountant general has been responsible for inspecting state-funded yeshivas, after it transpired that the Religious Affairs Ministry's inspection over the years had been inadequate.

The yeshivas, including those for married men, are funded by the Education Ministry on the basis of the number of students enrolled in them. The inspectors' job consists mainly of checking the number of attending students and making sure it corresponds to the yeshiva's submitted student list.

The small number of inspectors were in charge of some 1,200 yeshivas, mostly ultra-Orthodox.

The Beit Shmaya incident followed several months of relatively stiffer inspection in yeshivas, among other things due to the fraud scheme the police uncovered in a number of yeshivas. For example, a large Jerusalem yeshiva systematically forged documents to inflate enrollment numbers and receive higher financial allocations.

But after the Beit Shmaya incident the inspection was stopped altogether. Gafni's associates dismissed the assumption that the treasury was bending over backward to appease the Knesset's Finance Committee chairman at the time he was due to consider the Trajternberg report for social change.

Treasury officials denied freezing the inspection but confirmed "the inspection was suspended for a few days to clarify the circumstances, investigate the incident and draw conclusions."

"Due to the summer holidays and High Holidays, three weeks in which there were no studies and the period in which the yeshivas submit their updated reports about their students, it was impossible to conduct inspection," the officials said.

The officials said they were drafting new inspection guidelines intended to "increase the inspections' effectiveness and reduce interruption to the yeshivas' routine."

"After long intensive work a new model has been built with the Central Bureau of Statistics' help, to enable inspection ensuring more effective monitoring and reducing the study interruption," a treasury statement read. The statement said inspection was further delayed by a new data storage system installed in yeshivas, as changing the system made it impossible to obtain a list of enrolled students. "In the next few days, with the procedure's completion and the installation of the new system and the end of the holiday period, the inspection will return to its former intensity in a new improved format," it said.

Rabbi Shlomo Brilant, chairman of the union of yeshivas, said "we are in favor of inspecting yeshivas but not in a humiliating way."

Attorney Amnon de Hartoch, former head of the Justice Ministry's funds-allocation division, has recently come out in support of tighter inspection of all the state-funded institutions. De Hartoch, now a private attorney, recently demanded stopping allocations to the Tel Aviv Museum because its exhibitions were not accompanied by explanations in Arabic as required for state allocations.

"The ministries' delay in responding raises the issue of equality in the state's treatment of public institutions ... It seems the state emphasizes the need to inspect Torah-study institutions for no apparent reason," he said.

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