Rivlin rejects clemency request from bribe-taking former chief rabbi

Refusing appeal from Yona Metzger, who is serving 3.5 years for financial crimes, president says pardon system is only for ‘exceptional cases’

Rabbi Yona Metzger arrives at Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramle to begin serving his 3.5-year sentence for theft and bribery on May 1, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)
Rabbi Yona Metzger arrives at Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramle to begin serving his 3.5-year sentence for theft and bribery on May 1, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday rejected a clemency request from Israel’s former Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, who is serving a three and a half-year prison sentence for corruption.

The president said that “a pardon is not an additional link in the judicial system and is intended for isolated and exceptional cases,” noting that he had reviewed the case and given his opinion on the evidence and the crimes in a letter to Metzger.

Metzger is due to face a parole board soon, where he is expected to argue for early release and relief from the payment of fines.

In 2017, Metzger pleaded guilty to fraud, theft, conspiracy, breach of trust, money laundering, tax offenses and accepting bribes involving some NIS 10 million ($2.6 million) under a plea bargain reached with state prosecutors that recommended a three and a half-year jail term.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the official ceremony marking Jerusalem Day at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem on May 13, 2018. (Screen capture: Ynet)

In a rare move, a Jerusalem District Court judge later rejected the plea deal, handing down a stiffer sentence of four and a half years for the slew of bribery and corruption charges.

Metzger appealed to the Supreme Court, and justices agreed to reduce the jail time back to the original agreement. The justices said their decision “does not detract from the harsh condemnation of the ugly acts for which he was convicted.”

Having added an extra year to his sentence last February, the Jerusalem judge had accused Metzger of running his public post as a “corrupt business venture” and undermining the public trust. He noted in the sentence that while courts generally uphold plea bargain arrangements, the facts of the case — which saw the corruption extend over a period of several years — and Metzger’s senior public position left him no choice but to make the sentence more severe.

The rabbi was also ordered to pay NIS 5 million ($1.35 million) in fines, according to the terms of the plea bargain.

Metzger was accused in March 2016 of accepting some NIS 10 million ($2.7 million) in bribes through various nonprofit groups, and keeping about NIS 7 million ($1.9 million) of it for himself.

He stepped down as chief rabbi on July 24, 2013, due to the fraud investigation against him, just before the conclusion of his 10-year term in office.

Police said Metzger had stashed about $200,000 with his sister in Haifa, and a search of his home turned up NIS 40,000 (over $11,300 at the time) in cash hidden in various books. Metzger initially contended that the money in Haifa came from an inheritance, but the investigation found that claim to be untrue.

According to the indictment, various nonprofit organizations connected with the rabbi during his term in office received millions of shekels in donations, some of which Metzger allegedly took for his personal use.

In addition to profiting from donations to charitable causes, he was also accused of taking bribes meant to sway his opinion on matters he attended to as chief rabbi.

Israel has two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi, or of European Jewish heritage, and one Sephardi, hailing mainly from Jewish communities of Arab and Muslim countries. Their responsibilities include running the rabbinical courts and regulating the state’s kosher food supervision authority.

Metzger was voted into the prestigious position in 2003 with the support of the senior ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authorities at the time.

JTA contributed to this report.

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