ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Chief rabbi to Shas minister: Give funds to towns only if they build synagogues

Sephardic religious leader Yosef admits this would be illegal, advises new Health and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel to ‘do it in a smart way’; Liberman calls for rabbi to be sacked

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Health and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel (left) smiles as Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef tells him he should transfer funds to municipalities on the condition they build synagogues and yeshivas, April 22, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Health and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel (left) smiles as Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef tells him he should transfer funds to municipalities on the condition they build synagogues and yeshivas, April 22, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef on Saturday called on recently appointed Health and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel to provide funding to municipalities only if they build synagogues and yeshivas, while admitting that such a move would be illegal and encouraging the Shas minister to find “smart” ways to do it.

Yosef congratulated Arbel on his new role in the government, and said he can do a lot “to help the nation of Israel,” in remarks at a weekly post-Shabbat sermon. The Shas lawmaker officially took over the ministries on Wednesday after party leader Aryeh Deri was forced out of the posts in January.

“You can give a lot of funds to local councils on the condition they build synagogues and yeshivas. I won’t talk about it in detail, it’s not legal. Do it in a smart way,” Yosef advised. Arbel smiled in response to the comments.

Some Haredi journalists suggested the rabbi’s comments were made in jest, though as of Sunday afternoon he had issued no such clarification.

On Sunday, Yisrael Beytenu party chair Avigdor Liberman called for the chief rabbi to be fired immediately.

“The time has come to stop the insane robbery of the public coffers through shady deals by ultra-Orthodox businessmen in the Knesset and state institutions,” he tweeted.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv tweeted: “Minister Arbel, who has yet to respond to the grave comments of the chief rabbi, should be reminded that he swore an oath of allegiance to the country’s laws and not to the corrupt advice of the chief rabbi.”

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (C) confers with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during a vote in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Kariv urged Arbel to clarify that he will work according to the law and without any conflicts of interest.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel filed a complaint against the chief rabbi with the ombudsman for complaints against judges on Sunday. Yosef is a judge in Israel’s rabbinical court system.

The organization accused Yosef of violating “several rules of ethics that apply to him as a judge.”

The group called the remarks “unacceptable” and his behavior “inappropriate for a rabbinical judge’s status,” and urged the remarks be investigated.

Arbel was chosen by the Shas Council of Torah Sages to serve as health and interior minister while his party continues to push for Deri’s reinstatement in those roles.

The Shas chair was convicted of bribery during his first stint as interior minister in the late 1990s and sentenced to prison. In 2022, he was handed a suspended sentence after agreeing to a plea deal relating to tax offenses.

After the High Court found Deri’s twin appointments as health and interior minister “unreasonable in the extreme” given his recidivism, the coalition has been seeking legislation that would allow Netanyahu to reappoint him.

The court also ruled that the principle of estoppel barred Deri from ministerial office because, in his January 2022 plea bargain, he gave the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court the impression he was quitting politics permanently in order to secure the deal.

Deri denies that he ever committed to permanently retiring from political life.

A bill that would clear the path to reappointing Deri by barring the courts from intervening in ministerial appointments — which passed its first reading in the Knesset — has been paused along with the rest of the Netanyahu government’s controversial judicial overhaul legislation.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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