Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan (Bayit Yehudi) on Wednesday denied claims he is politicizing the establishment of local religious councils, despite the fact that several heads of local authorities have complained that Bayit Yehudi delegates are being forced upon them.
Local religious councils administer the bureaucracy of religious services, such as kashrut services, ritual baths, and marriage licensing in 132 towns and cities across the country. They are and are run by a panel of between five and 11 members, under the jurisdiction of the Religious Services Minister.
The appointment process for the councils is complicated though, with 45 percent of representatives chosen by the minister of religious services, 45% chosen by the local municipality, and 10% chosen by local rabbis.
However, if one of the bodies does not agree with either of the other two within a year of the last municipal elections, the minister can designate two appointees to lead the religious council.
During a hearing of the Knesset Committee for the Interior on Wednesday, several heads of local municipal councils complained that the Religious Services Ministry had submitted large numbers of Bayit Yehudi representatives on its list of candidates.
“Although we passed on an agreed upon list of candidates that answered all the criteria, the ministry chose to ignore it and sent us a list of candidates offered by them, of which at least six were Bayit Yehudi representatives,” said Shavit Mas, the head of the Tozran-Kadima Regional Council.
The head of the Shlomi Regional Council made similar comments, as did several others, although the legal adviser to Ben-Dahan said that at least two of the conflicts raised by the municipal authorities in Wednesday’s committee hearing had already been dealt with.
Since the municipal elections in October 2013, the composition of 28 local religious councils have been agreed on, while another 10 are to be completed in the next week, Ben-Dahan said.
There are currently 40 religious councils with ministerial appointees made by previous religious service ministers who, due to a legal anomaly, cannot be dismissed, while another 32 regional councils had not completed the required steps to compose the religious council.
Ben-Dahan said that the reasons for these delays included bureaucratic difficulties, the requirement to have at least one female representative on each council, and disputes between the city rabbis, among others.
But the deputy minister rejected claims that he was making political appointments, saying that not one such appointment had been made, although he said that temporary appointments had been made in order to enable the local religious council to continue to operate. These appointees, who were the chairmen of the previous religious councils, have been given two-month terms which could be extended by another two months if necessary, so as to allow more time for an agreement on the composition of the full religious council to be reached.
Committee chairwoman and Likud MK Miri Regev insisted, however, that there is “a bad smell” surrounding the issue.
“Appointments cannot be made dependent on belonging to the Bayit Yehudi party,” Regev said, expressing concern that permanent ministerial appointees could be made at the end of the two-month period for the temporary appointees currently in place.
The legal adviser to the deputy- minister, Yehezkel Herzl, also rejected Regev’s claims, saying that the heads of the local municipal councils are complicating the establishment of the religious councils.
“The deputy minister took the courageous decision of extending the period of service of the chairmen of the [previous] religious councils without regard to their political connections, in order to allow the democratic process to be pursued to the fullest extent,” Herzl said.
The director of the Hiddush religious freedom lobbying group, Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, said that the fact that only a small percentage of religious councils have been formed since the October 2013 elections shows that they are unnecessary and should be abolished, with the services they provide integrated into local municipal governments.
“Just like the state rabbinate, the local religious councils also perpetuate religious coercion...
and frequently increase hatred for Judaism and constitute a way of extracting money for the purposes of appointing political allies,” Regev said.
“There is no reason why religious services cannot be provided by the local authorities, like every other municipal service.”