New bill on funding religious councils raises concerns over revival of Rabbis Bill

‘They are basically asking for a blank check to appoint rabbis as they see fit,’ says Rabbi Seth Farber; Shas MK argues bill ‘not connected at all’ to the controversial legislation

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"

Members of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee debate a measure on funding local religious councils, July 2, 2024. (Dani Shem-Tov/Knesset)
Members of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee debate a measure on funding local religious councils, July 2, 2024. (Dani Shem-Tov/Knesset)

Lawmakers in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee voted Tuesday to advance a bill granting the religious services minister the power to allocate additional funds to local religious councils around the country.

The bill, written by MK Erez Malul, drew sharp criticism from some watchdog groups due to concerns that it could serve as a backdoor for reintroducing some of the provisions of the failed Rabbis Bill recently promoted by his ultra-Orthodox Shas party — a claim that Malul and other backers of the legislation denied.

The new bill would amend the Religious Services Law, which regulates how much the government and municipalities contribute respectively to the budgets of the bodies providing religious services to communities at the city and regional council levels.

It states that the religious services minister, currently Shas’s Michael Malkieli, will be allowed, with the agreement of the finance minister, to pay for “salary expenses and positions beyond what is stated” in the law.

According to the bill’s explanatory notes, the legislation would allow the government to help pay the “salaries of regional rabbis, rabbis of moshavim and ritual bath attendants without burdening the regional authorities and councils” — both within communities featuring religious councils and those without such a body.

Following its approval, the bill will advance to the Knesset plenum for the first of three readings necessary for it to become law.

Shas party member and current Religious Services Minister Michael Malkieli at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Although it does not explicitly grant the minister the power to appoint rabbis, opponents of the bill have repeatedly alleged that it would open the door to the return of the so-called Rabbis Bill, which was taken off the Knesset agenda last month after coalition lawmakers blocked it in committee.

If passed into law, the Rabbis Bill would have cost taxpayers tens of millions of shekels annually in salaries for hundreds of new neighborhood rabbis employed by local municipalities. Critics charged that it would have benefited Shas by providing jobs for its apparatchiks, who wield wide influence over the state-funded Chief Rabbinate.

Speaking with The Times of Israel during a break in Tuesday’s hearing, Malul said that there are many municipal rabbis in settlements, as well as kessim, or kahenat — religious leaders in the Ethiopian Beta Israel community — whose salaries are anchored in government decisions rather than legislation.

The councils often “don’t want to take part in paying their salaries and so we are simply creating a route that includes… a special budget for these positions,” he said.

This bill is “not connected at all to the Rabbis Bill,” he continued, arguing that “whoever is saying that is throwing sand in your eyes” and is engaged in “cheap populism.”

To bolster his case, Malul pointed out that former religious services minister Matan Kahana, who disagrees strongly with the ultra-Orthodox on many issues relating to religion and state, also supported the bill.

Then-Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana attends a Knesset House Committee hearing to declare MK Amichai Chikli a defector from his Yamina party, April 25, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Asked about why he believes the bill is necessary, Kahana claimed that it addressed a budgetary “abnormality” that made paying salaries to some employees of the religious councils difficult, adding that he had worked unsuccessfully to solve the issue during his tenure as minister.

“The budgeting system for rabbis and regional rabbis has existed for many years in an absurd manner,” agreed Religious Services Ministry Director-General Yehudah Avidan, complaining that the Religious Services Law “does not allow the ministry to make salary agreements.”

“The government decided many years ago to budget for the Ethiopian kessim, and then the state said it was a mistake and that they should fire all the kessim and publish a new tender,” he said, giving an example of problems with the current system.

Despite the insistence of the laws’ backers, however, critics were not convinced, with opposition lawmakers such as Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky and Labor MK Gilad Kariv repeatedly voicing objections during the frequently heated hearing.

“What is troubling is the possibility that on the basis of this [legislation], another track will be created that allows the government to come and dramatically expand a number of positions,” Kariv told the committee, complaining that this would give ministers in various future governments the ability to add and subtract staff from local councils, leading to instability.

Shas MK Erez Malul (right) and other members of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee debate a measure on funding local religious councils, July 2, 2024. (Sam Sokol/The Times of Israel)

“The law comes to solve a problem… but the answer creates something problematic because two legal budgeting tracks are being created for the same body,” agreed Stern.

Assaf Wexler of the Finance Ministry’s Budget Division likewise raised questions about the law, stating that if passed, “the government will decide for the religious councils where to invest their resources, whereas today the religious council decides where to invest its resources.”

“We are creating another problem of an employee who is almost fully funded by the state and not supervised by the state,” he stated, a concern also shared by a representative of the Justice Ministry, who worried that creating a new funding track would obscure public oversight.

“They’ve taken different parts of the [Rabbis] Bill and they are trying to pass them,” Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of the ITIM nonprofit, which helps Israelis navigate the country’s religious bureaucracy, told The Times of Israel.

“They took the economic pieces allowing the Religious Services Ministry to create jobs and pay for them. This is the main part of the bill. They are basically asking for a blank check to appoint rabbis as they see fit. In any normal government, this would never fly because these things require oversight.”

Then-Incoming Religious Services Minister Michael Malkieli, left, shakes hands with Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in Malkieli’s office in the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Courtesy/Michael Malkieli’s office)

And while the bill is written in a vague manner, it appears that its “main goal is budgeting for rabbinical positions,” agreed Dr. Ariel Finkelstein, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute who focuses on issues of religion and state.

While it does not allow the religious services minister to appoint new rabbis, it incentivizes local authorities to accept the money for additional staff, creating “a basis for expanding the number of serving rabbis,” in effect advancing the purpose of the Rabbis Bill, he said.

“In my view, this is a problematic proposal that creates an additional budgetary track for religious councils, and raises the concern that this will lead to the allocation of rabbinical positions unnecessarily,” he said.

“I get the impression that they want to expand the rabbinical positions and control how they are allocated without the involvement of the Finance Ministry.”

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