Knesset revives bill expanding Chief Rabbinate’s influence over local authorities

Previously torpedoed by Benny Gantz, legislation could cost taxpayers tens of millions of shekels annually in salaries for hundreds of new neighborhood rabbis

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 Chief Rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (L) and Rabbi David Lau (R) speaks during an event, on January 11, 2016. (Yaakov Coehn/Flash90)
The Chief Rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (L) and Rabbi David Lau (R) speaks during an event, on January 11, 2016. (Yaakov Coehn/Flash90)

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Sunday announced the revival of a controversial bill that would 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 at the same time also eroding the role of women in the process.

If passed into law, the bill, which will be brought up for discussion in the committee on Tuesday, could cost taxpayers tens of millions of shekels annually in salaries for hundreds of new neighborhood rabbis employed by local municipalities.

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 — was 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.

“Netanyahu and his coalition prove once again that for them politics is above all else; the main thing is to survive,” the National Unity party said in a statement on Sunday.

“Precisely now, when the north is on fire and the south is at war, the coalition decides to promote a twisted law, inflame the rift in the nation and break new records of disconnection. We prevented the promotion of the law three months ago, and we will do everything to thwart it now as well,” the statement added.

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

According to a revised draft sent to members of the press, it appears that some efforts have been made to address critics’ concerns, including requiring the Religious Services Minister to consult with the head of local authorities before appointing representatives to election committees.

Critics of the bill allege that it would benefit the Shas party by providing jobs for its apparatchiks and increasing the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s say both in appointing rabbis and in how they operate.

It would create hundreds of publicly funded jobs for Orthodox rabbis, while giving the Chief Rabbinate of Israel considerable say in the appointment of all new municipal rabbis, reversing changes instituted in 2022 by former religious services minister Matan Kahana, a National Unity lawmaker.

It would also remove restrictions on holding a vote for a municipal rabbi in the immediate lead-up to municipal or parliamentary elections – a stipulation meant to ensure that rabbinical appointments do not become currency in political trading — and lower the minimum number of women on the rabbinical appointment boards from 40 percent to one-third.

In addition, the legislation would do away with a requirement for cities to renew municipal rabbis’ terms every 10 years or give them the option of convening election assemblies to appoint a new rabbi. Instead, city rabbis would essentially hold their jobs until they turn 75, after which they would need to have the city that employs them extend their terms.

Protesters rally for women’s rights at the Tel Aviv Rabbinate, July 18, 2023 (Yael Gadot)

Israel has about 470 municipal rabbis in total. Their monthly salaries range from NIS 9,000 ($2,400) to NIS 43,000 ($11,200). Some 30 cities without a rabbi would be forced to hire one under the bill, and Tel Aviv and Haifa, which do not currently have any rabbis, would need to hire a minimum of two.

In an analysis of the bill over the summer, the Israel Democracy Institute found that it would allow for the hiring of 1,070 new rabbis, though there were only plans for 514, at a cost of NIS 120 million ($33 million).

“The situation is absurd. Rather than seeing how fractured our nation is right now, how threatened we are existentially and how dangerous our internal situation, [committee chairman MK Simcha] Rothman and co. are taking advantage of the war to pass a bill that will spend tens of millions of shekels to deprive citizens of their basic Jewish rights and provide more jobs for the Haredim,” Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of the ITIM nonprofit, an advocacy group that helps Israelis navigate their country’s religious bureaucracy, told the Times of Israel.

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 councilmen and the municipality director-general and the rest evenly split between public representatives chosen by the municipality and the religious services minister.

Religious Services Minister Michael Malchieli arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Under the new regulations, municipality director-generals 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 now appear irrelevant as the matter has returned to the Knesset in legislative form.

Following the announcement of the bill’s revival, Likud lawmakers took to the Constitution Committee’s WhatsApp group to voice their opposition, Army Radio reported.

“Why… are we bringing up a law that is controversial and causes controversy during a time of war,” asked MK Tally Gotliv. “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.”

“It was agreed by everyone that it is wrong to promote the law during a war, so it’s unclear why it has now been decided to renew the debate on the law,” chimed in MK Moshe Saada.

“They thought we wouldn’t notice. Enough already,” Gotliv responded.

Canaan Lidor contributed to this report.

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