MK Elazar Stern’s bill to expand the electoral committee for appointing chief
rabbis passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset on Wednesday, 53- 14,
following a stormy debate on the issue in the plenum.
But despite the
easy passage of the bill, Economy and Trade Minister and Bayit Yehudi chairman
Naftali Bennett sustained a blow to his authority, with nine of his 12 MKs
absenting themselves from the vote, despite the party’s official backing for the
Only Bennett, Senior Citizens Minister Uri Orbach and faction
chairwoman Ayelet Shaked – the public faces of the party’s election campaign –
were left to press their “in favor” buttons in the plenum.
The party is
split on which national-religious rabbi to nominate as its candidate for the
position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi, with a significant segment favoring Ramat Gan
Chief Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, while Bennett, Orbach and Shaked would like to see the
liberalizing Rabbi David Stav of the Tzohar rabbinical association as Bayit
Shaked said of her colleagues’ noshow that all nine MKs
had coordinated their actions with her, and even found opposition MKs to leave
the plenum during the vote so their absence wouldn’t count against the
coalition, a common Knesset practice.
Coalition chairman Yariv Levin,
however, was told only that MKs from Tekuma, a constituent of Bayit Yehudi –
Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, Deputy Religious Services Minister
Eli Ben-Dahan, MKs Zvulun Kalfa and Orit Struck – would miss the vote, and was
not made aware that they coordinated with offsetting opposition MKs.
means Deputy Education Minister Avraham Wortzman, Knesset Finance Committee
chairman Nissan Slomiansky and MKs Mordechai Yogev, Yoni Chetboun and Shuli
Muallem left the plenum without giving Levin notice.
A party source
called the incident “bad news” and a sign of growing disunity within the
Even when there are meetings in which Bayit Yehudi MKs decide
how they will vote, many of them make their own decisions and walk out, he
“The MKs should be respecting party decisions and following faction
discipline,” the source added.
Stern’s bill would increase the size of
the 150-member committee to 200, and reserve 20 percent of the panel for
The expansion of the committee so soon before the scheduled
elections for the chief rabbis in June is controversial however, since it would
dilute the influence of the Shas haredi party, which wields significant power on
This influence derives from the fact that many of the public
officials who are members of the committee were appointed by, or owe their
position to, the Shas political organization.
Shas and United Torah
Judaism view the effort to alter the composition of the committee as an overt
attempt to marginalize the haredi voice in the election of chief
At the same time, senior conservative national-religious rabbis
associated with Bayit Yehudi are also opposed to the candidacy of Stav, viewing
him as too liberal, and are equally opposed to the expansion of the electoral
This is both because Stav’s chances would be significantly
enhanced by the expansion proposed by Stern’s bill, as well as out of concern
for future amendments to the composition of the committee, amendments that might
sideline not just haredi but also nationalreligious influence on the
On Monday afternoon, a group of 10 leading conservative
national-religious rabbis, including Rabbis Dov Lior, Elyakim Levanon and
Mordechai Shternberg, sent a letter to Bayit Yehudi MKs informing them that they
strongly opposed changing the composition of the committee and would call on all
rabbis involved in the election process to boycott the election if the
legislation passes and the panel is enlarged.
During Wednesday’s debate
on the bill before the vote, UTJ MK Moshe Gafni, while speaking from the Knesset
plenum podium, said the bill was a disgrace.
“They want to change the
rules of the game while this very process is under way,” he
Gafni also argued that Stern’s bill was designed specifically
to benefit a particular person, something that Hatnua and Yesh Atid have
publicly opposed in relation to the race for the Chief Rabbinate and as a
Both parties have said they will oppose legislation
designed specifically to allow Ariel to run for chief rabbi despite currently
being disqualified because he is over 70, as well as removing the restriction on
a serving rabbi from running for election again, which would enable current
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to stand again as a candidate.
implying that expanding the electoral committee would pave the way for Stav, who
has the public backing of Hatnua, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu, but is opposed
by the haredi parties and conservative elements in the Bayit Yehudi
Stern denied that it was a so-called “personal bill,” stating that
it would not enable anyone to stand who would otherwise be excluded from
presenting their candidacy for the position, and would not prevent anyone who so
wished to run for the post either.
The MK also argued that since chief
rabbis serve for a 10-year term and the new Knesset had only just convened
following the election, the bill was justified despite the close proximity of
the vote for the rabbis.
And Stern fired back at Gafni that he and the
haredi parties were only interested in the Chief Rabbinate as a way of enforcing
haredi standards on the public.
“If the Chief Rabbinate is so important
to you, why don’t you eat in restaurants with kosher certification from the
rabbinate, why don’t haredi authorities accept the legitimacy of the
rabbinate-approved conversion process?” Stern challenged.
“If it’s that
important, why didn’t [former leader of the haredi world] Rabbi [Yosef Shalom]
Elyashiv stand for chief rabbi, and why doesn’t [current haredi leader] Rabbi
Shteinman run?” the MK asked.
In the meantime, the Bayit Yehudi party has
continued to advance the political deal with Shas that would guarantee mutual
support for the election of Amar and Ariel as chief rabbis of Israel in the
Bayit Yehudi’s Kalfa, who belongs to Tekuma,
submitted a bill to the Knesset that would remove the age limit of 70 for chief
In return for Shas’s support for the 76- year-old
Ariel, Bayit Yehudi has agreed to help pass legislation that would allow a
serving chief rabbi (such as Amar) to stand for a second term, currently
prohibited by a clause of the 1980 Law for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
Kalfa’s bill seeks to remove this clause.