Coalition dispute delays bill to shutter religious councils

Yisrael Beytenu measure would transfer powers, assets of state-funded Orthodox Jewish religious councils to local elected officials

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu), in July 2010. (photo credit: Flash90)
Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu), in July 2010. (photo credit: Flash90)

A bill sponsored by the Yisrael Beytenu party that would disband Israel’s local religious councils has been delayed due to disagreement within the coalition.

The measure, proposed by the powerful chairman of the Knesset Law Committee, MK David Rotem, and MK Robert Ilatov, both from Yisrael Beytenu, would transfer all responsibilities and assets of dozens of state-funded Orthodox Jewish religious councils throughout Israel into the hands of local elected municipal and regional governments. This would include funding and oversight of state synagogues and rabbis, the building and maintenance of mikvaot, or ritual bathing facilities, burial and more.

The bill was proposed last Monday, and was set to be voted on by the cabinet’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday. But Yisrael Beytenu has agreed to delay the vote, the successful outcome of which would have granted government support to the bill — a key step in assuring it a parliamentary majority.

The delay was “temporary,” the party said, and was due to disagreement between Yisrael Beytenu, a secular nationalist party, and the religious-nationalist Jewish Home. The Jewish Home party is committed ideologically to the state religious institutions that are the bane of many of Yisrael Beytenu’s Russian-speaking immigrant voters. The two coalition members have agreed to negotiate a compromise before the bill moves forward.

According to the bill, local governments would receive the right to institute taxes to fund the religious services, which are today funded partly by the national state budget. And the cabinet-level oversight for the new municipal-run religious services would be in the hands of the Interior Ministry.

The effect of the bill — and its purpose — would be to place local religious services in the hands of local elected officials, make their funding dependent on local tax collection and thus make them more answerable to local needs.

Within hours of its proposal earlier this week, the bill garnered a stream of invective from ultra-Orthodox media.

A mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof, May, 2013 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
A mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof, May 2013 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

“This is the complete decimation of religious services,” an unnamed “official in the religious services” told the Kikar Hashabbat, or “Shabbat Square,” website, a Haredi news and opinion site named after a central intersection in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Geula.

“It’s a mistake to think that the religious councils’ primary purpose is to provide jobs,” the official said Monday, alluding to accusations of cronyism and wastefulness long leveled at the councils by some Israeli political leaders and religion-and-state critics.

“Their primary purpose is to keep the religious services autonomous, so that a situation never arises in which a secular local government, which lacks even a basic understanding of religious services, is given charge of the religious services of Israel’s citizens,” the official explained.

“This cannot be allowed to happen. We must fight aggressively to prevent this bill [from passing],” he added.

Yisrael Beytenu representatives could not immediately be reached to comment on the bill, but initial assessments suggest it stands a good chance of passing into law. Between the secular-leaning parties in the coalition, especially Yisrael Beytenu itself, together with Yesh Atid and Hatnua, and the expected support of significant opposition parties such as Labor and Meretz, it will probably enjoy a significant majority in the Knesset plenum.

MK Robert Ilatov (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Robert Ilatov (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The bill follows close on the heels of the successful passage of the so-called Tzohar Bill, which became law in the last Knesset session over the summer and formally went into effect Monday.

The Tzohar Bill, too, sought to weaken local religious monopolies, in this case by allowing Israeli Jews to register their marriage at the rabbinic registrar of their choice anywhere in the country instead of only in the town of their reseidence. Since rabbinic registrars are paid on a per-registration basis, the measure sought to create a “buyer’s market” in which rabbinic marriage registrars work to attract Israeli Jewish couples, in contrast to the previous system in which many local rabbis, who enjoyed a monopoly on the residents of their town, would heap ever-growing demands for proof of a couple’s religious identity and religious observance as a precondition for allowing them to marry.

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