Yesh Atid MK kicked out hearing, says law a 'moral disgrace'

Knesset panel pushes off vote on contentious bill expanding Chief Rabbinate’s influence

Likud MKs object to promoting law during wartime; with municipalities expected to shoulder part of the cost, mayors express outrage, demand funds go to help residents during war

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee discusses a bill to expand the number of municipal rabbis across the country, June 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee discusses a bill to expand the number of municipal rabbis across the country, June 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman on Tuesday morning postponed a vote on a bill that would dramatically change how municipal rabbis are chosen, amid fierce opposition to the legislation by both coalition and opposition lawmakers.

Announcing the cancellation of the vote due to insufficient support within the committee following a heated debate, Rothman lashed out at Likud lawmakers Moshe Saada and Tally Gotliv, who vocally declined to support the controversial measure.

Rothman said that coalition legislators should remember that they are “acting as part of a framework” and that it is necessary to compromise “in order to preserve a unified government during a war.”

“It would be a shame and disgrace if you remained silent for three months during the waffling over Rafah but were willing to blow everything up for the Rabbis Law,” he said.

If passed into law, the bill could cost taxpayers tens of millions of shekels annually in salaries for hundreds of new neighborhood rabbis employed by local municipalities.

It would also greatly expand the influence of the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry in the appointment of municipal rabbis at the expense of local authorities — while also eroding the role of women in the process.

Likud MK Tali Gotliv attends a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, June 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Critics of the bill charge that it would benefit the Shas party by providing jobs for its apparatchiks. On Monday evening, Channel 12 reported Shas chairman Aryeh Deri had threatened to bring down the government if it isn’t passed.

Lawmakers from both the coalition and legislation voiced objections to the reintroduction of the law during today’s hearing, with Gotliv repeatedly interrupting the proceedings as Rothman called for order.

The committee’s Likud members planned to vote against the bill because “the heads of the [local] authorities know how to decide [on rabbis] better than the ministries,” Gotliv told Rothman.

According to Hebrew news reports, Gotliv had initially agreed to be replaced by another lawmaker for the vote but ultimately backtracked, reiterating that she will participate and vote against the bill.

Following pushback by National Unity leader Benny Gantz and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar, the bill — which would have paved the way for hundreds of new government-funded rabbinical posts — had been indefinitely put on ice by lawmakers earlier this year.

Both parties objected to the bill on the grounds that it violated the terms of an agreement requiring that all coalition parties agree on any legislation advanced during wartime. However, Sa’ar left the coalition shortly after the bill was shelved, followed by Gantz last Sunday, paving the way for its reintroduction.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, left, attends a Chief Rabbinate Council meeting with his Sephardic counterpart Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau’s father and predecessor Meir Lau, in Jerusalem on December 24, 2023. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate)

After it was placed back on the committee’s agenda, Saada accused the Religious Zionism party of acting “like thieves in the night” — while Gotliv posted on an internal committee WhatsApp group that “there are enough laws to prepare that are connected to the war.”

“Leave the disputes and this law for better days and take it off the agenda,” she wrote.

During the hearing, Rothman ordered the removal of Yesh Atid MK Yorai Lahav-Hertzanu after he loudly decried the law. In a tweet, Lahav-Hertzanu called the committee meeting a “horror show by Simcha Rothman, who just threw me out of the committee just because I asked a question about a section of the law.”

The law is “a moral disgrace, and I will continue to oppose it with all my might,” he said.

Representatives of local government, who would be expected to shoulder part of the financial burden of the newly appointed rabbis, came out swinging against Rothman during the hearing.

“If you want to appoint a rabbi yourself, you don’t need us; you need us for the money to finance it,” charged Federation of Local Authorities chief Haim Bibas.

“Instead of arranging more patronage, the time has for budgets to flow to authorities to deal with the difficult problems created as a result of the war,” said Bibas. “This is a law that will harm the public and the local government, and we oppose it with all our might.”

“Is now the time to bring in this stupid legislation?” asked Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam.

“You should be ashamed,” he yelled, accusing lawmakers of adding a further financial burden on his municipality during wartime “instead of discussing how to help the city of Ashkelon.”

“Thirty people were murdered in my city,” he declared. “There is no sense to this.”

The mayors of Herzliya and Dimona also spoke out against the bill.

“We can talk about the essential disputes and introduce more changes, but there was not one thing in which we did not listen to the local government,” Rothman said in response to their objections. “My commitment is that everything will be done in consultation with the local authorities as we have done until today.”

After the committee’s decision to postpone the vote, Labor chief Yair Golan declared that the matter “should not be postponed but should disappear from the world immediately.”

New Hope MK Ze’ev Elkin noted that the coalition has a majority in the Constitution Committee but that “this law is so ridiculous that currently a coalition has lost even this majority.”

“No MK in Likud dares to come here and support the law. Leading rabbis in Religious Zionism oppose the law. But Rothman continues in his own way, because Shas is pressing him,” he tweeted.

Shas chair Aryeh Deri speaks during a campaign event ahead of the municipal elections in Jerusalem, February 19, 2024 (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

After the bill was shelved earlier this year, the Religious Services Ministry introduced a set of proposed regulations that would accomplish the same goal while sidestepping intense public and legislative opposition.

Currently, local governments have a majority on the election committees, with 50% of the votes going to city council members and the municipality director-general, and the rest evenly split between public representatives chosen by the municipality and the religious services minister.

Under the new regulations, municipality directors-general would have been replaced by the heads of local religious councils (who are often appointed by the minister) while the municipality’s public representatives would be cut out of the process entirely.

However, the regulations were never implemented and the matter has been returned to the legislature.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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