Metzger suspends himself from duties over fraud probe

Justice Minister Livni says move is fitting and proper in light of the circumstances; Metzger maintains his innocence.

June 23, 2013 10:17
4 minute read.
Rabbi Metzger

Rabbi Metzger. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger voluntarily suspended himself from a number of major duties on Sunday, including serving on the Rabbinical High Court, the Chief Rabbinical Council and the Appointments Committee for Rabbinical Judges.

Metzger’s lawyers announced the self-initiated suspensions in a letter to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Metzger’s announcement also stated that he continues to maintain his innocence regarding recent allegations against him, one of his aides and two heads of charities regarding money-laundering, bribery and fraud, but that until the investigation is concluded, suspending himself from some of his duties was the right thing to do for the state.

Metzger is currently under house arrest and prohibited from going to his office or interacting with his aides pending completion of the police investigation against him.

Livni replied quickly to Metzger’s letter, stating that Metzger’s self-suspension was “fitting and proper in light of the circumstances.” She added, “even if there is only a short time until he finishes his term, there is tremendous significance in preserving the institution of rabbinic judges.”

Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan said the investigation was a sorrowful story.

He insisted, however, that Metzger “has the right to be considered innocent,” and that his decision to suspend himself from his duties as a rabbinical judge on the Supreme Rabbinical Court and from meetings of the council of the Chief Rabbinate was “correct, ethical and teaches [us] about the man.”

He said that everyone should hope Metzger will be found innocent, “especially during this time when we are in a struggle over the character of the Chief Rabbinate.”

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel said that in light of the fact that one of the delegates appointed by Metzger to the electoral committee for the chief rabbis, Rabbi Nissan Ben-Tzion Tzioni, is also under investigation for involvement in the alleged misdemeanors, he should be ejected from the body.

“Rabbi Metzger was obligated to recuse himself,” said MQG legal adviser Tzruriya Meidad-Lozon.

“Serving as chief rabbi under a cloud of suspicions would have been a heavy blow to the institution of the rabbinate... Now the integrity of the electoral process for the incoming chief rabbis must be defended to avoid staining it by allowing those suspected of criminal offenses onto the electoral committee.

The Reform Movement in Israel called Metzger’s decision “too little too late.”

“As long as the Chief Rabbinate represents the nexus of power, politics, money and religion, the corruption will continue to harm it,” said Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the movement’s director.

Hiddush, a religious-freedom lobbying organization, said the investigation was “another nail in the coffin of established religion in Israel.”

Hiddush director and Reform Rabbi Uri Regev reiterated his organization’s stance that it favors a communal model of religious services and that “the Chief Rabbinate with state-granted coercive powers” was no longer acceptable.

Meanwhile, the Lod District Court ordered that the detentions of the three other suspects in the Metzger case will end on Tuesday, appealing a ruling of the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court that extended the remands further.

The court noted the suspects’ claims that it was discriminatory to hold them in police custody when Metzger is accused of the most serious crimes and was released to house arrest days ago.

However, it dismissed these claims, stating that the suspects had been in direct contact with those providing the bribes, whereas Metzger’s contact had been indirect, which justified different treatment.

While justifying refusing to immediately release the suspects based on that distinction, the court said it did believe the remaining investigative activities that the police need to perform could be done faster than they claimed.

As a result, the court ordered the earlier release date, and added that if the police still believed on Tuesday that they needed more time, they would need to apply for a new order to try to extend the detention of the other suspects.

Police from the National Fraud Squad raided the home and offices of Metzger on Thursday, and questioned him under caution for hours, as part of a bribery, fraud, money-laundering and breach-oftrust case. Metzger was released to five days house arrest on Thursday night following about 10 hours of questioning.

Metzger and the other suspects are alleged to be involved in the pilfering of hundreds of thousands of shekels from a number of charities.

Following an undercover investigation, officers went public on Thursday, arresting the three suspects and seizing documents, computers and other materials from Metzger’s home and office they believe may be linked to the allegations.

The suspects include Haim Nissan Eisenshtat, who worked for years as Metzger’s driver and personal assistant. Eisenshtat is accused of taking bribes, fraud, breach of trust and money laundering.

The other two suspects are Simcha Karkovsky – manager of the Beit Hatavshil charity in Bnei Brak, and Tzioni – manager of a study hall and rabbinical school in Tel Aviv. Both men stand accused of money laundering and bribery.

In 2005, a bribery, fraud, and breach of trust case was opened against Metzger, but then-attorney- general Menahem Mazuz decided to close the case in April 2006. At the time, Mazuz said he was disturbed by revelations about how Metzger behaved during the investigation and called for the rabbi to resign.

Ben Hartman contributed to this report.

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