MKs propose bill for rabbinic immunity from prosecution for incitement

Ultra-Orthodox MKs accuse state attorney’s office of “McCarthyism” and “persecution” of rabbis over controversial opinions.

MKs Eichler and Lipman argue in Knesset 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
MKs Eichler and Lipman argue in Knesset 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Three ultra-Orthodox MKs have proposed a bill that would prevent rabbis from being put on trial for comments or rulings they may issue which could be interpreted as incitement to violence or hatred.
United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler together with Shas MKs Moshe Abutbul and Uriel Busso submitted their legislation to the Knesset on Monday.
It states that “a rabbi will not be held criminally responsible and will have immunity from any legal action,” due to his publication of a work on Jewish law, an approbation to another work on Jewish law or his expressing an opinion in writing or verbally “on matters pertaining to the Torah of Israel.”
The MKs claim in the explanation to their bill that there are “different agents in the law enforcement services who have set themselves a goal to prevent rabbis publishing the Torah perspective on matters on the public agenda.”
Eichler, Abutbul and Busso go on to accuse the State Attorney’s Office of McCarthyism and of “persecuting rabbis to shut them up and subjugate eternal Jewish law to the ratification of attorneys and the state attorney’s office.”
“This behavior of the State Attorney’s Office is similar in no small way to the behavior of US senator Joseph McCarthy who conducted a campaign of silencing,” said the ultra-Orthodox MKs. They argued that this alleged campaign by the state attorney’s office contravenes Israel’s democratic values, freedom of religion, freedom of expression for rabbis, freedom of occupation for rabbis, damages Israel’s Jewish character, and turns Israel into “a third world country.”
Despite the claims by the MKs, most high profile cases of investigations into, or complaints against rabbis for problematic comments which could amount to incitement to violence or hatred have ended without indictments.
The most renowned case is that of the Torat Hamelech book, written in 2009 by two far-right rabbis from the Yitzhar settlement, in which they wrote about the laws of war according to Jewish law, and stated, among other rulings, that it is permitted to kill non-Jewish infants if they might endanger Jews in the future.
The attorney-general at the time, Yehudah Weinstein, refused to prosecute the authors in 2012, saying that the book was written in a general manner and that rulings on religious law or publications of religious sources should not be dealt with in criminal proceedings in order to preserve freedom of religion.
The High Court upheld this decision in 2015.
Another prominent case was the charges brought against Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu who in 2006 was indicted on grounds of racial incitement for comments he made to the media.
The charges were eventually dropped in return for the rabbi apologizing for his comments, and pledging not make similar statements in the future.
Eliyahu subsequently issued calls in 2010 not to rent or sell property to non-Jews in Safed or anywhere else in Israel, basing his position on Jewish law, but the State Attorney’s Office eventually decided not to prosecute him again.
And in 2016, complaints of incitement to violence and hatred were filed to the police against Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar for comments he made denouncing homosexuality.
“This is a cult of abomination, this is clear. This is an abomination. The Torah requires a death sentence for this. This is in the first row of the most severe transgressions,” said Amar in an interview with Israel Hayom.
Charges were never brought against him.
In 2003, far-right Chabad leader Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh was indicted for incitement to racism in his book Tipul Shoresh (Root treatment), although the indictment was dropped following a letter of clarification Ginsburgh issued.
In 2008, Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri was convicted via a plea bargain of incitement to racial hatred in for comments he made against a bilingual Arabic-Hebrew school in Jerusalem.
“The Arabs are donkeys and beasts. They are inferior. What do they want? To take our women. They say we are racist. In reality, they are the wicked and cruel ones. They are imbued with the filth of the snake. There are pure and impure, and they are impure,” said Batzri during a demonstration against the school.
The head of the Women of the Wall prayer rights activists group strongly criticized the new bill, with director Yochi Rappaport, saying it would create “a broad opening for ongoing, wild incitement by rabbis against entire communities, including Women of the Wall.”
Rappaport noted that her organization had recently filed a petition to the High Court of Justice requesting it instruct the Civil Service Administration to bring disciplinary charges against Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef for disparaging comments against Women of the Wall.
Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman also filed a petition with the High Court in February against Yosef demanding his tenure as chief rabbi be ended, after he advanced a conspiracy theory that the aliyah to Israel of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law was a conspiracy by the state to negate the electoral strength of the ultra-Orthodox community.
Head of the Reform Movement in Israel Rabbi Gilad Kariv condemned the proposed bill, saying it was “more appropriate for Iran than Israel,” and said it would put rabbis above the law.
“MKs are trying to make the Knesset a shelter for the rabbinate from racist incitement, for the illegitimate involvement [of rabbis] in politics, and the dissemination of lies against different communities and denominations within the Jewish people,” said Kariv.