MK Stern’s bill on chief rabbi panel passes hurdle

9 out of 12 lawmakers from Bayit Yehudi skip vote.

Naftali Bennett 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Naftali Bennett 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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 measure.
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 Yehudi’s nominee.
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.
That 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 faction.
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 said.
“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 women.
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 the panel.
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 rabbis.
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 committee.
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 body.
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 declared.
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 general principle.
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.
Gafni was 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 party.
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 forthcoming elections.
Bayit Yehudi’s Kalfa, who belongs to Tekuma, submitted a bill to the Knesset that would remove the age limit of 70 for chief rabbi candidates.
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.