Chief rabbi suspends himself amid corruption probe

Chief rabbi suspends himself amid corruption probe

Under house arrest, Yona Metzger denies multiple allegations of financial improprieties

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger. April 9, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger. April 9, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, currently under house arrest on suspicion of financial crimes, announced Sunday that he was suspending himself from his official duties.

In messages to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, Metzger said that in light of the investigation into his affairs he would temporarily desist from performing his duties at the rabbinical court, and refrain from attending various meetings and functions associated with the post of chief rabbi.

His lawyers stressed Sunday that Metzger denies all the allegations against him and hopes the investigation will be completed and the allegations dismissed soon.

“Suspending himself is the right thing to do under the current circumstances. I accept and respect his decision,” Livni said in a statement.

Metzger was released to house arrest late Thursday night. He had been questioned for 10 hours by police after suspicions arose he was involved in pocketing donation money. Three of his associates, including his driver and aide, were remanded.

Earlier Thursday, members of the financial crimes unit of the police raided Metzger’s home and office after a two-month undercover investigation into suspicions that he was involved in fraud, theft, money laundering and bribe-taking.

“The chief rabbi today was summoned for questioning, held and interrogated for several hours. Rabbi Metzger answered all the questions and he denies the allegations against him,” his lawyers said in response to the arrest.

The court remanded Metzger’s aide Haim Eizenstein for eight days. Simcha Karkovsky, head of the Beit Hatavshil nonprofit, will be held for six days and Ben Zion Tzioni, head of the Tzedaka V’Mishpat nonprofit, for seven days.

According to details of the investigation released to the media, police suspect Metzger was given hundreds of thousands of shekels by various nonprofits, which he pocketed or distributed to family members.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and state prosecutor Moshe Lador both signed off on Thursday’s raid. Police confiscated several papers, computers and other property belonging to Metzger, and froze bank accounts under his name.

“We were surprised to see this arrest,” said a spokesman for Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who added that Amar was praying that the charges would prove baseless. “In every case, each person is presumed to be innocent until proven otherwise,” he added.

A member of Metzger’s family said that the affair “fell on my head like a bolt out of the blue.” He had heard about the arrest from news reports, he told Ynet News. “We have no idea what it is about and we all hope this affair will end in nothing,” he added.

Metzger was questioned in 2005 over suspicions that he took bribes from a Jerusalem hotel, but the case was closed for lack of evidence.

His 10-year term is nearly at an end and he is due to step down once a new chief rabbi is chosen in the coming months.

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