Allegations have been leveled at the haredi political parties and Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef of attempting to circumvent the current list of candidates for rabbinical judgeships, in order to gain time in which to pack the membership of the appointments committee and add their own nominees to the shortlist of candidates.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, committee members MK Revital Swid of Labor called on committee chairman Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz to prevent the circumvention of the approved candidates, saying it is crucial to appoint rabbinical judges who believe in gender equality and who are connected to the general public.
Dr. Rachel Levmore, the representative female rabbinical courts advocate on the committee, called for public pressure on Steinitz to ensure the appointment of a rabbinical judges who hold the same values as the majority of Israeli citizens.
During the term of the last government, a list of 74 candidates for consideration was drawn up by the Appointments Committee for Rabbinical Judges, chaired by then-justice minister Tzipi Livni, to fill 24 positions on the 12 regional courts.
The rabbinical courts have exclusive jurisdiction over Jewish marriage and divorce in the country, and the judges therefore have great influence over the lives of Jewish citizens, regardless of whether they are religious, through their rulings on the denial of bills of divorce, the validity of marriage registration applications, including those of converts, questions of Jewish status, and other aspects of Jewish law related to personal status.
To prevent lengthy wrangling and delays in the appointments committee over the selection of the 24 rabbinical judges, an unofficial agreement was reached between the haredi and non-haredi forces to divide the available positions, so that a third of the judgeships will go to Ashkenazi haredi judges, a third to Sephardi haredi judges, and a third to national-religious judges.
But Swid, Levmore and the prominent women’s rights advocates groups are saying that the haredi forces in the committee are trying to limit the number of national-religious judges who will be appointed.
On July 15, Yosef wrote a letter to the members of the appointments committee informing them that he intended to appoint as associate rabbinical judges 10 men who previously served in the rabbinical courts but are now retired.
The chief rabbi together with the religious services minister, David Azoulay of Shas, are entitled to make such appointments, which last four years, but the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women heavily criticized this step, pointing out the troubling judicial record of several of the proposed associate justices, including one who was investigated by the police for intimidating witnesses.
The explanation given for these appointments was the severe backlog of cases in the rabbinical courts, due to the high number of empty judgeships, and that the associate rabbinical judges were needed to help the serving judges with this heavy workload.
But on August 20, the acting director of the rabbinical courts, Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi, in the name of committee chairman Steinitz, sent the agenda for the forthcoming meeting of the appointments committee to the committee members, including a provision to open the panel’s subcommittees.
In addition, it is believed that there is an agreement to annul or change a decision by Livni when she was committee chairwoman prohibiting the consideration of candidates who are relatives of committee members.
The subcommittees are tasked with reviewing all applicants for consideration to be rabbinical judges, but the subcommittees reviewed 200 such applicants during the term of the last government and agreed to submit 74 of them as candidates for selection to the 24 open positions.
Levmore and others on the committee now allege that the intent to reopen the subcommittees and the decision of Yosef and Azoulay to appoint associate rabbinical judges indicates an attempt by the haredi political parties to reduce the number of liberal-minded rabbinical judges who might be appointed to the courts.
Swid and Levmore are concerned that only 15 rabbinical judges will be chosen in the present round of appointments and that only those 15 will be subject to the agreement of thirds between Ashkenazi haredi, Sephardi haredi and religious-Zionist rabbis.
During the last Knesset session there were only 15 spots available, but another nine have opened since then.
According to the claims, the subcommittees will then reconsider other candidates outside of the original 74 who were approved during the last Knesset for the remaining nine open seats, and thereby create a list with more amenable candidates for Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Alternatively, the haredi parties will wait until they have greater representation on the appointments committee, which could occur when Levmore’s term as the panel’s female rabbinical courts advocate ends in the summer of 2016, before appointing more judges.
"The intent to bring through the back door associate rabbinical judges who have already retired is inappropriate," Swid told the Post
"There are 24 positions to fill and there are extremely fitting candidates, who are devoted to the religion, who favor equal rights for women, who will not delay the issuing of bills and divorce and who will free chained women.
"The proposal to open the subcommittees shows that there is a desire by some of the committee members to delay the appointments on the basis of inappropriate considerations which would harm the rabbinical courts system and the general public.
"I expect from Minister Steinitz as the chairman to remove these two items from the committee"s agenda," Swid concluded.
Speaking to the Post
, Levmore asserted that the character and mindset of the new rabbinical judges would have great long-term influence over some of the most pressing issues for Jewish life in Israel, and expressed frustration at the politicization of the appointments committee.
"The rabbinical judges we appoint at this time will determine the approach of Jewish law in Israel and the Diaspora on marriage, divorce and the question of who is a Jew for generations to come," she said.
"As a member of the committee who was appointed due to her professional capacity, I am constantly confronted with the influence of political actors who are using their power to determine the identities of the appointed rabbinical judges," continued Levmore
“It is of utmost importance that the citizens of Israel take note of this situation and make their voices heard to all committee members particularly chairman Yuval Steinitz.”
Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, the director of the Rackman Center, said that "the politicization of the appointments process has reached new heights,” and claimed that the appointment of associate judges is a ploy to increase the haredi influence in the courts.
"This maneuver serves to gain time for the ultra-Orthodox forces who are used to controlling the committee," said Halperin-Kaddari.
"They may want to stall until the composition of the committee becomes more favorable to them, once the term of the current rabbinical court advocate is over. Bearing in mind that such judicial positions entail high salaries and benefits, bringing back retired rabbinical judges whose rulings and manners were so controversial, thus bypassing the formal appointment system, verges on corruption."
A source close to Yosef and Shas chairman Arye Deri denied that there is any connection between the appointment of associate rabbinical judges and the opening of the subcommittees. He told the Post
that it is still the intention of the chief rabbi to appoint 24 rabbinical judges, but that it might be necessary to appoint the first 15 from the pool of 74 candidates, and when filling the other nine positions, take into consideration rabbis who had received qualifications as rabbinical judges since the original list was drawn up last year.
Levmore noted, however, that rabbis who are newly qualified as rabbinical judges have never been appointed in the first appointments process following their qualification.
She added that it is also standard practice in the civil judges appointments process to use the original shortlist for any seats that have been vacated since the initial positions opened up, and that the same practice should be employed with the rabbinic courts.
Yaakobi told the Post
that "there are elements on the committee who wish to increase the number of candidates but to more than 85."
He said, however, that new candidates would be drawn from the original pool of 200 applicants and would not need to be interviewed again.
Steinitz’s office declined a request for comment.