Israeli Students Protest Gov't. Stipends

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JERUSALEM, Israel - Israeli university students are fed up with government subsidies for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva (seminary) students and they're letting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu know.

Countrywide demonstrations took place on Wednesday in Haifa, Herzliya, Netanya, Jerusalem, Beersheva, Sderot and Kiryat Ono.

University students say they are not targeting the haredim - the ultra-Orthodox Jews known by their black coats, untrimmed beards and side curls. Rather, they are seeking equality for the rest of the nation's students.

On Wednesday morning, demonstrators gathered in front of the prime minister's Jerusalem residence to give Netanyahu "a wakeup call," releasing roosters on the street to help make their point.

"Good morning Bibi, the students are on the street," one poster read. Another proclaimed, "Bibi wake up! We're worth more!"

But Netanyahu says the students are protesting "a situation that has prevailed [in Israel] for 30 years" - namely government subsidies for the ultra-Orthodox.

"This is not new. It has existed under all governments, including those of Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, the Kadima government and also my government," the prime minister said in a cabinet communiqué at the beginning of the week.

And he's right. Successive administrations have subsidized this relatively small segment of the population - less than 10 percent - exempting them from compulsory military service so they can devote themselves to studying the Torah (Law of Moses).  

Netanyahu, whose coalition partners supporting the subsidies could bring down his government, said he would establish a committee within two weeks to re-evaluate the funding.

In June, Israel's Supreme Court ruled to discontinue stipends for older yeshiva students. The decision upheld a petition submitted in 2000 by a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who believed the government's policy discriminated against secular students.

"There is no place for distinction between yeshiva students in any other institutions," Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch ruled.

Meanwhile on Monday, the Knesset passed the initial reading of the 2011-2012 budget by a 62 to 34 margin, with the stipend intact.

Minister of Minorities Avishay Lieberman (Labor) accused Netanyahu of deception.

"The prime minister and the haredi factions are engaged in parliamentary thievery by enabling a vote to the stipends without proper deliberations," Braverman said.

The Prime Minister's Office responded by saying if legislation approving the stipends wasn't passed by the final reading, the funding would be removed from the budget.

At Wednesday's demonstrations, university students vowed to continue their protests against the lopsided subsidies.

"We won't stop fighting until students receive the same benefits as the yeshiva students. Students of medicine and economics do not contribute less than yeshiva students," said Tel Aviv University's Student Union President Ran Livne.

Interdisciplinary Center Student Union Chairman Yair Itzhar-Belachovsky said "the government is choosing…to turn its back on this public and trample it."

"The students are an entire part of the public that works, pays taxes, serves in the reserves, volunteers in the community and contributes to the state," Itzhar-Belachovsky said.

"We will not lend a hand to this and we will not be silent until justice is done and the government of Israel remedies this perversion, not only by distributing the load, but also by giving benefits to those who shoulder it," he said.

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YNet news contributed to this report.

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