Is it 'Religious Councils' or 'Political Councils'?

'Jewish Home' Party exerted pressure upon local pols: Appoint our people to religious councils

The Knesset Interior Committee held a meeting to investigate accusations that the Jewish Home party led by Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett exerted undue pressure upon local politicians to grant political favors to Jewish Home Party supporters by appointing them to administrate local religious councils.

Deputy Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-DahanDeputy Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan

In recent days, the matter of Israel’s network of municipal religious councils once again surfaced in the news, as the deadline for appointing council members came and went (the law requires that the religious councils be reconstituted within a year after the municipal elections, which were held on October 22, 2013), and only 19 out of the 132 councils were in effect appointed. Hiddush continuously monitored the process and published a special report on the issues of appointment of women to these councils and the overall inability to conform to the existing law due to the pitfalls of this highly politicized process. Our conclusion was that the institution should be abolished entirely, and its authority transferred to local municipal bodies. Hiddush presented its findings and recommendations at a special hearing held in the Knesset Interior Committee, and its conclusions were covered by the Israeli media.

The process for appointing religious council members is perhaps the most complicated system in Israel, because it was politicized from its inception, and was intended to give the major political interests a deciding role in the formation of these local religious councils. In each community, the reconstitution of the council involves a process of “advice and consent” by three distinct political/rabbinic interests: These are 1) the local municipal council, 2) the local rabbis, and 3) the Minister of Religious Services. Each can appoint a set percentage of members to the council, but each also provides its opinions on all other proposed candidates, and without consent from each of the three interests the process is halted.

The religious fundamentalist forces paid no heed to the court rulings and would stymie the councils’ reconstitution altogether.

Municipal council representatives would nominate Reform and Conservative candidates, as they represented the compositions of the councils. This was consistently met with vehement opposition from the Minister and city rabbis, and would freeze the appointment process entirely, in spite of repeated Supreme Court rulings that mandated these appointments. The religious fundamentalist forces paid no heed to the court rulings and would stymie the councils’ reconstitution altogether, rather than allow Reform or Conservative representatives. A parallel battle ensued over the appointment of women to the councils, but elicited less opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling. Still, only a handful of female council members were appointed throughout the country and none were appointed to senior positions. Hiddush researched and documented this matter thoroughly, and challenged the authorities to provide adequate representation to women, including appointments to senior positions.

Hiddush found that in the year subsequent to the last municipal elections, representing the deadline for assembling the local religious councils, only 19 out of 132 councils had successfully completed the appointment process. The remainder now come under the provision in the law enabling the Ministry of Religious Services to make two political appointments per council that will perform the councils’ functions instead of the fully composed panel. It’s critical to understand that the Minister’s appointees have absolute authority over local religious council functions, although they do not represent the composition of the municipal councils, and are not themselves necessarily local residents. This system presents vast opportunities for political favors, as is evident from the past, but today it is the Jewish Home Party that enjoys this “privilege”, rather than the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party.

The religious councils are nobody’s private enterprise – something doesn’t smell right here.

At the special Knesset hearing, voices of local government leaders complained of pressures applied by Bennett’s “Jewish Home” party to appoint individuals connected with their party (link, Hebrew). Knesset Members of other parties were quick to denounce Minister Bennett and Rabbi Ben-Dahan [the Deputy Minister overseeing the process], including Committee Chairwoman Miri Regev of Likud, who stated, “The religious councils are nobody’s private enterprise – something doesn’t smell right here.” Of course, Deputy Minister Ben-Dahan denied the allegations of local politicians such as Mayor Shavit Mass of the Kadima-Zoren Municipality and Mayor Gabi Naaman of Shlomi. The allegations were repeated and expanded in subsequent days in the Israeli media, and Head of Hiddush Rabbi Uri Regev stressed the very serious implications of such political manipulations, and the suspicions regarding illegal intervention, expressing hope that further investigations by the State Comptroller and police would ensue.

Ironically, Bennett and Ben-Dahan had publicly recognized the problems caused by ineffective, intransigent and bigoted political appointees to religious councils, as they spearheaded the 2013 law to allow marriage registration at any local religious council, thereby creating competition among them. In May 2013 not long after the elections, Minister Bennett was quoted by the Times of Israel (link) as saying, “from now on appointments [to the religious councils] will be on a professional basis, not a political one.” Rabbi Regev welcomed the acknowledged need for an comprehensive change in religious services, but responded, “Unfortunately, the slogans about separating religious services from politics and appointing professional search committees sounds hollow and is aimed at eroding past mass appointments by the ultra-Orthodox parties and guaranteeing the current Religious Services Minister's control over the appointment of religious council heads instead. Israel needs a fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence's promise for freedom of religion and equality, not continued politicization of religion.” (link)

Also at the hearing, Hiddush Vice President Shahar Ilan related to the Committee members the Hiddush findings regarding the appointment of women, acknowledging that the number of women has tripled under the current government, and that Deputy Minister Ben-Dahan had kept his promise to appoint at least one woman per council. However, the numbers are low still, and two female representatives per religious council should be the minimum, and the government should make assurances that women will be appointed to senior council positions, particularly among the “Political appointees in lieu of a Council” mentioned above. Ben-Dahan responded in the affirmative and promised that it will be done.

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