A broad coalition of Mevaseret Zion residents has banded together in a petition to the High Court of Justice against the installation of any municipal chief rabbi and the election process that they claim has been deeply compromised and designed to elect a particular candidate.
In particular, the petition alleges that Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of Shas and the Religious Services Ministry have acted in violation of electoral procedures to weight the electoral committee and the election assembly with their allies in order to control the election outcome.
The coalition includes Reform and Orthodox rabbis; secular, religious and progressive Jews; an MK; the overwhelming majority of the city’s municipal council; and the mayor himself.
Mayor Yoram Shimon has told Azoulay in no uncertain terms that Mevaseret Zion cannot afford the massive NIS 400,000 annual salary of a municipal chief rabbi, saying it would plunge the religious council, which is already running a budget deficit, into hundreds of thousands of shekels in debt.
The mayor also has pointed out that the religious council itself has not convened for the last two years and is being run by an administrator alone, and that the legal lacuna the council is operating in should be addressed before appointing a municipal chief rabbi.
One of the central complaints of the petition is the composition of the electoral committee, which has several central roles in the election process, including the critical task of selecting the synagogues that send delegates to the 16-member electoral commission that votes in the election.
Rabbi Zevediah Cohen, the chairman of the five-member electoral committee selected by the religious services minister, it turns out, is used by the ministry to serve as the chairman of numerous electoral-committees in different cities. Shimon called Cohen’s appointment inexplicable, while noting that he also is a close associate of Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.
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In addition, two of the five members of the committee selected to the committee who were supposed to be selected by the municipal council instead were selected by Azoulay. Furthermore, one of the two is aligned with Shas in the municipal council, while the other did not attend committee meetings.
The Law for Jewish Religious Services 2007 – Election of a Municipal Chief Rabbi states that the religious services minister and the Council of the Chief Rabbinate select the election committee chair and two other members, while the municipal council selects two representatives.
Despite Shimon’s objections, the election committee went ahead and convened itself and began the process of selecting the four synagogues to send delegates to the electoral commission.
The petition also alleges that the electoral committee did not establish clear and objective criteria for the selection of these synagogues as it is required to under the law, casting further doubt on the process.
And the petition also raises questions about how the synagogues themselves selected the delegates from among their members, alleging that the synagogues did not fully convene their boards or membership as required.
Finally, the petitioners suspect that the ministry is seeking to promote the election of a particular candidate, Rabbi Shlomo Ben-Ezra, who sought the position in 1999 but whose candidacy was struck down by the High Court “now and in the future” due to conflict of interest concerns.
More broadly, the municipal council is overwhelmingly opposed to the appointment of a municipal chief rabbi, which it describes as a “unnecessary” position for the city of 27,000 residents, and voted 12 to 2 against the appointment.
One of the petitioners, who requested to remain anonymous, said that there is no need for a municipal chief rabbi in Mevaseret Zion because the three separate parts of the city which were united in to form the enlarged municipal jurisdiction of the city are well served by three neighborhood rabbis serving their respective neighborhoods.
“No one here said they lack rabbis here, it’s totally unnecessary and is just designed to provide a job for someone close to the ministry,” the petition stated.
Jeremy Saltan, a municipal politician, Mevaseret Zion’s Bayit Yehudi party branch leader, described the electoral process as “anti-democratic” and not having been conducted in accordance with the regulations set down by the law.
“I oppose the anti-democratic process of not following proper protocol, which has led to a flagrant breaking the law,” said Saltan.
“The Shas minister appointed an election committee against the wishes of the mayor, the municipal council and the law.
His committee chose three haredi Sephardi synagogues and one haredi Ashkenazi synagogue to represent the religious community in Mevaseret Zion in the voting body... while in the last national elections Bayit Yehudi received 5.4% of the Mevaseret Zion vote compared to Shas’s 3.8% and UTJ’s 0.53%.
The city’s character is Zionist, not haredi, and if we are going to have an election we need to make sure that we have a voting body that properly represents the character of the city and the character of the religious public.”
The Religious Services Ministry responded that, despite the objections of the mayor and the municipal council, “it is the policy of the ministry ‘to fix that which is crooked’ and to appoint a rabbi in every place possible.”
The ministry added that it was aware of the budgetary problems that will be generated by the large salary of the municipal rabbi “and will work in cooperation with the relevant authorities to provide an answer.”
It was unclear whether the election, would proceed as scheduled on Tuesday, after the High Court granted the state an extension for filing its response to the petition.
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