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

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"

Illustrative: The Rabbinical Court, in Jerusalem, April 2, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Illustrative: The Rabbinical Court, in Jerusalem, April 2, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee announces 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.

After objections 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.

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.

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

“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 says 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.”

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.

If approved by the ministry following the period of public comment, the regulations would have lowered the number of residents required for the appointment of a second municipal rabbi in a city from 100,000 to 50,000, rolled back former religious services minister Matan Kahana’s reform limiting the terms of municipal rabbis to 10 years, and allowed for the appointment of rabbis with full-time jobs.

It would have also dropped the number of women legally required to serve on rabbinical selection committees from 40 percent to one-third as well as greatly reduced the level of representation currently enjoyed by municipalities on these panels.

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 reports.

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

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