Extension of shul tax exemption falters

A controversial bill that passed its preliminary reading along party lines hit the skids Monday during its first hearing in the powerful Knesset Finance Committee. The proposal by MK Nissim Ze’ev (Shas) to extend the local property tax exemptions that already apply to synagogues to include other buildings met with stubborn opposition in committee from coalition partners in Israel Beiteinu as well as from Kadima MKs.
In its current form, Ze’ev’s bill would extend that exemption to include “synagogues that, in addition to use for worship, the building or the sanctuary of the synagogue is also used as a study center or a place where activities that advance Torah culture are held.”
The opposition has argued that the law simply established a loophole by which any building containing a “synagogue” and used for religious ceremonies would enjoy a tax exemption.
In the course of verbal sparring that erupted during the session, MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) accused coalition members who supported the bill of aiding “the continuation of the religious rampage attempting to return us to the Middle Ages.”
Representatives from the Interior and Justice Ministries argued as to whether or not the current exemption included synagogues that are also used for the purpose of holding Torah-related classes. Attorney Harel Goldberg of the Justice Ministry said he discovered that some local governments charge those synagogues local taxes, while other local governments view such synagogues as currently exempt.
Representatives of local governments also expressed concern that the bill would result in a further loss of income for already cash-strapped authorities.
Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (UTJ) rejected opposition members’ claims that the law created a slippery slope that would enable wedding halls to also enjoy the tax exemption. But Opposition MKs said that the evidence presented merely furthered their argument that the legislation was unnecessary, with MK Haim Oron (Meretz) arguing that the issue at hand was simply to clarify the existing law, and to enforce it. The legislation, he said, would inadvertently open the door to other institutions that hold Jewish-related activities, including field schools receiving exemptions.
Kadima representatives found welcome allies in Israel Beiteinu, who indicated a willingness to vote against bringing the law forward for its first reading on the Knesset floor. Although Israel Beiteinu’s MKs nominally supported the bill in its preliminary reading, their support was sufficiently enlisted in the committee to convince Gafni to delay the vote on the bill by a week in order to allow MKs to work out a unanimously acceptable wording for the law.
“Israel Beiteinu acted today with responsibility and we hope that they continue to act that way in the future,” said Plesner following the meeting. “This was an important message that the budgetary rampage of Shas and [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu has its limits. The attempt to ‘milk’ public funds at the expense of local authorities was a total failure.”