Sephardic chief rabbi calls for judicial reform dialogue to avoid civil war

Yitzhak Yosef says the heated debate over planned legislation is ‘disturbing and very painful’ but insists High Court should refrain from ruling on religious issues

Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem on September 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem on September 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef on Saturday called for dialogue on the government’s proposed judicial overhaul, saying it was needed to prevent the possibility of a civil war.

“All the discord and all the civil war is disturbing and very painful,” Yosef said in a weekly sermon.

“There should be dialogue so that there is not a civil war — we are all the people of Israel, we are all brothers,” he said.

While saying that he would not get involved in the politics of the controversial overhaul, which has riven Israeli society, Yosef nonetheless said that the High Court of Justice should not intervene in matters of religion, for which there is a Chief Rabbinate court.

Yosef cited allowing unleavened goods into hospitals on Passover and recognizing non-Orthodox conversion to Judaism as examples of the kind of issues that the secular court should steer clear of.

“I don’t interfere in [the judicial overhaul],” he said, and in like manner “you have to explain to [justices of the High Court] that you don’t interfere in religious matters.”

The High Court is “not above” the rabbinical court,” he said pointedly.

During coalition negotiations to form the government last November, Yosef said he backed a judicial overhaul, which ultra-Orthodox parties made a key demand for joining the government.

“You have to [pass] the override clause to overcome these High Court rulings,” he said at the time.

Yosef is the son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, late spiritual leader and founding father of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party — a key coalition partner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud. Legislation set to be advanced this week includes a bill that would allow Shas leader Aryeh Deri to return to ministerial office despite a High Court ruling banning him from doing so due to his convictions for corruption.

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the Supreme Court and give it control over the appointment of judges. It says the plan is a long-overdue measure to curb what it sees as outsize influence by unelected judges.

But critics say the plan will destroy Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority. They also say it is an attempt by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, to escape justice.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the past two months to protest the sweeping overhaul.

Business leaders, Nobel-winning economists, and prominent security officials have spoken out against it, military reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty, and even some of Israel’s closest allies, including the US, have urged Netanyahu to slow down. Repeated efforts by President Isaac Herzog to broker a compromise have not yielded fruit.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, June 2, 2016 (Yaakov Cohen/Flash90)

Last week, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved for Knesset reading a bill to prohibit bringing hametz, or leavened food items, into public hospitals during the Passover holiday. The government-sponsored bill has met fierce resistance, including from some religious groups who see it as likely to antagonize Israelis against Judaism.

The bill was also opposed by the Attorney General’s Office, which found that in its current form, the legislation goes too far and would be difficult to defend in court. It is set to be voted on by the Knesset this week.

For years, hospitals and other public institutions banned hametz during the week-long Passover holiday — when Jews traditionally refrain from eating leavened goods — with some even instructing guards to search people’s bags for forbidden foods at the doors. But in 2020, the High Court of Justice declared that hospitals could not conduct such invasive searches — after years of pushing the government to find some compromise or pass some legislation on the issue — and last year the court issued a similar ruling regarding army bases.

Also, last year the High Court ruled that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements must be recognized as Jews for the purpose of the Law of Return, and are thus entitled to Israeli citizenship.

The bombshell decision, which shattered the longstanding Orthodox monopoly on officially recognized conversions in Israel, was the culmination of an appeal process that began more than 15 years ago, involving 12 people in the country who converted to Judaism through non-Orthodox denominations. The justices specified that they had previously withheld issuing a ruling to allow the state to handle the matter, but the state had failed to do so.

Haredi leaders, as well as many Israeli Religious Zionist figures, do not view the Reform movement as an authentic form of Judaism and do not recognize Reform rabbis.

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