Yisrael Beytenu seeks to disband Israel’s religious councils

New bill would shift responsibility for all religious services from exclusively Orthodox bodies to elected local government

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

A mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, in a Jerusalem neighborhood. (illustrative photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
A mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, in a Jerusalem neighborhood. (illustrative photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

A new bill proposed Monday by two Yisrael Beytenu MKs would mark a revolution in the Israeli state’s religious services for Jews, a source in the party told The Times of Israel.

The measure, proposed by the powerful chairman of the Knesset Law Committee, MK David Rotem, and MK Robert Ilatov, would transfer all responsibilities and assets of dozens of religious councils throughout Israel into the hands of local elected municipal and regional governments. This would include funding and oversight of local synagogues and rabbis, the building and maintenance of mikvaot, or ritual bathing facilities, burial and more.

Local governments would receive the right to institute taxes to fund the religious services, which are today funded partly by the national state budget. And the cabinet-level oversight for the new municipal-run religious services would be in the hands of the Interior Ministry.

The effect of the bill — and its purpose — would be to place local religious services in the hands of local elected officials, make their funding dependent on local tax collection and thus make them more answerable to local needs.

Within hours of its proposal, the bill garnered a stream of invective from ultra-Orthodox media.

MK David Rotem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK David Rotem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“This is the complete decimation of religious services,” an unnamed “official in the religious services” told the Kikar Hashabat, or “Shabbat Square,” website, a Haredi news and opinion site named after a central intersection in Jerusalem’s Haredi neighborhood of Geula.

“It’s a mistake to think that the religious councils’ primary purpose is to provide jobs,” the official said, alluding to accusations of cronyism and wastefulness long leveled at the councils by some Israeli political leaders and religion-and-state critics.

“Their primary purpose is to keep the religious services autonomous, so that a situation never arises in which a secular local government, which lacks even a basic understanding of religious services, is given charge of the religious services of Israel’s citizens,” the official explained.

“This cannot be allowed to happen. We must fight aggressively to prevent this bill [from passing],” he added.

Yisrael Beytenu representatives could not immediately be reached to comment on the new bill, but initial assessments suggest it stands a good chance of passing into law. Between the secular-leaning parties in the coalition, especially Yisrael Beytenu itself, together with Yesh Atid and Hatnua, and the expected support of significant opposition parties such as Labor and Meretz, it will probably enjoy a significant majority in the Knesset plenum.

MK Robert Ilatov
MK Robert Ilatov

The bill follows close on the heels of the successful passage of the so-called Tzohar Bill, which passed into law in the last Knesset session over the summer and formally went into effect Monday.

The Tzohar Bill, too, sought to weaken local religious monopolies, this time by allowing Israeli Jews to register their marriage at the rabbinic registrar of their choice anywhere in the country. Since rabbinic registrars are paid on a per-registration basis, the measure sought to create a “buyer’s market” in which rabbinic marriage registrars work to attract Israeli Jewish couples, instead of the previous system in which many local rabbis, who did not have to worry about couples going elsewhere because they were not legally allowed to do so, would heap ever-growing demands for proof of the couple’s religious identity and religious observance as a precondition for allowing them to marry.

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