Bribe-taking ex-chief rabbi begins prison term

Yona Metzger starts 3.5 year spell at Ma’asiyahu Prison after conviction on fraud, theft, conspiracy

Rabbi Yona Metzger arrives at Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramle to begin serving his 3.5-year sentence for theft and bribery on May 1, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)
Rabbi Yona Metzger arrives at Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramle to begin serving his 3.5-year sentence for theft and bribery on May 1, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Israel’s former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yona Metzger began a 3.5-year prison sentence on Monday after being convicted on a string of corruption charges.

Metzger, dressed in his iconic long-tailed suits and ultra-Orthodox hat, arrived at Ma’asiyahu Prison in the central Israeli town of Ramle, where he will serve his sentence alongside another high-profile prisoner, former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Former president Moshe Katsav also served his sentence there before he was paroled last December.

On Sunday, the Supreme Court accepted an appeal by Metzger to reduce his initial sentence of four and a half years by 12 months.

Earlier this year, Metzger plead guilty to fraud, theft, conspiracy, breach of trust, money laundering, tax offenses and accepting bribes involving some NIS 10 million ($2.6 million) under a plea bargain reached with state prosecutors that recommended a 3.5-year jail term.

But in a rare move, a Jerusalem District Court judge rejected the plea deal in February, handing down a stiffer sentence of 4.5 years for the slew of bribery and corruption charges.

Metzger appealed to the Supreme Court, and justices agreed to reduce the jail time back to the original agreement. The justices said their decision “does not detract from the harsh condemnation of the ugly acts for which he was convicted.”

Tacking on the extra year to his sentence in February, the Jerusalem judge accused Metzger of running his public post as a “corrupt business venture” and undermining the public trust. He noted in the sentence that while courts generally uphold plea bargain arrangements, the facts of the case — which saw the corruption extend over a period of several years — and Metzger’s senior public position left him no choice but to make the sentence more severe.

In addition to a prison term, the court is still to decide how long Metzger will be on probation after serving his jail time. The court will foreclose on an apartment in his name in central Tel Aviv and the rabbi was also ordered to pay NIS 5 million ($1.3 million) in fines, according to the terms of the plea bargain.

Metzger was accused in March 2016 of accepting some NIS 10 million in bribes through various nonprofit groups, and keeping about NIS 7 million ($1.8 million) of it for himself.

He stepped down as chief rabbi on July 24, 2013, due to the fraud investigation against him, just before the conclusion of his 10-year term in office.

Police said Metzger had stashed about $200,000 with his sister in Haifa, and a search of his home turned up NIS 40,000 (over $11,300 at the time) in cash hidden in various books. Metzger initially contended that the money in Haifa came from an inheritance, but the investigation found that claim to be untrue.

According to the indictment, various nonprofit organizations connected with the rabbi during his term in office received millions of shekels in donations, some of which Metzger allegedly took for his personal use.

In addition to profiting from donations to charitable causes, he was also accused of taking bribes meant to sway his opinion on matters he attended to as chief rabbi.

Israel has two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi, or of European Jewish heritage, and one Sephardi, hailing mainly from Jewish communities of the Muslim world. Their responsibilities include running the rabbinical courts and regulating the state’s kosher food supervision authority.

Metzger was voted into the prestigious position in 2003 with the support of the senior ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authorities at the time.

JTA contributed to this report.

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