Shas optimistic about Religious Affairs vote

The gov't canceled a planned vote last Tuesday when it became clear that it lacked a majority.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 224.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 224.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On the eve of the Knesset vote to reestablish the Religious Affairs Ministry, senior Shas leaders on Sunday were convinced of a majority. "Members of the coalition are supposed to respect cabinet decisions," said a Shas spokesman. "And that is what is going to happen on Monday." The spokesman was referring to last Sunday's cabinet vote calling to recreate a Religious Affairs portfolio to be held by Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen, who is currently a minister-without-portfolio responsible for religious services in the Prime Minister's Office. However, mustering the needed support for the move might not be easy. Last Tuesday, the Knesset was supposed to ratify the move, but the government canceled the vote when it became clear that it lacked a majority. Israel Beiteinu and most Labor MKs said they would vote against the move, despite their membership in the coalition. Meanwhile, some Likud and National Union/National Religious Party MKs also announced they would vote against the cabinet decision. Critics of the move claimed that reestablishing the ministry and placing it under Shas's control could lead to corruption. Cohen, who would be given the power to appoint neighborhood rabbis, heads of religious councils and other religious council employees, might be tempted to hire according to political affiliation instead of skills, they said. For instance, two rabbis - one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi - are slated to be elected in Jerusalem. Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef would like to see one of his sons appointed Sephardi rabbi. If Cohen takes control of the Religious Affairs Ministry, he could use his influence to help Yosef realize his dream. There are 6,000 employees in 133 religious councils, including about 600 rabbis, hundreds of mikve attendants, and state-sponsored burial societies, marriage registrars and clerks. The total annual budget to keep the religious councils running is about NIS 400 million. Some 70 percent of the budget is provided by the local governments, and 30% is provided by the state. Until the Religious Affairs Ministry was dismantled on the orders of former prime minister Ariel Sharon's government at the end of 2003, it was traditionally controlled by the National Religious Party and Shas. Party cronies were rewarded with jobs. The decision to dismantle the ministry was supported by religious and haredi MKs as a means of cleaning up their public image. Meir Spiegler, director-general of the National Authority for Religious Services - the body that replaced the Religious Affairs Ministry - said that over the last four years, he has managed to eradicate the rampant corruption that plagued the ministry. "Thanks to our close supervision over the management of the religious councils, we have brought about a significant improvement in management norms," said Spiegler. "We've managed to wipe out the endemic waste that delegitimized the religious councils. There are no more unauthorized salary raises, and we have significantly cut back on excess labor costs." Spiegler said that during his term as director-general, the salaries of religious council chairmen had been cut sharply. Instead of earning as much as NIS 40,000 a month, religious council heads now earn no more than NIS 18,000 a month. This highest salary goes to only three council heads in the three largest cities: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. All other religious council heads earn between NIS 5,000 and NIS 12,000, depending on the size of the city. Before the ministry was dismantled, religious council jobs were handed out on the basis of political allegiance, said Spiegler. Since the National Authority for Religious Services began functioning, Spiegler added, several other negative phenomena have been eradicated as well. Neighborhood rabbis are now forced to retire from their positions at age 67 in accordance with the law governing all state employees. In the past, these rabbis would continue to receive a salary years after they were supposed to retire. Spiegler also described corruption in the areas of kosher supervision and the running of mikvaot. "Workers used to live in fear of being fired suddenly," he said. "They were afraid to open their mouths. They knew they would be fired if they did not go along with the game. There was no one who could come along and say, 'You can't do that,' Now there is." However, Hadar Lipschitz, a doctoral student of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who, together with Dr. Gideon Sapir of Bar-Ilan University, has created a public policy model for providing religious services in Israel, said the appointment of Cohen as religious affairs minister might be a positive move. "The Jewish state is in dire need of a coherent religious affairs policy," Lipschitz said. "Spiegler is a great guy, hardworking and honest, but he is just a clerk; he cannot initiate policy decisions. That's what a minister is for." Lipschitz said the model currently being used to provide religious services was inefficient, adding: "The government cut the salaries of religious council heads, [but] did nothing to change a situation in which the prime minister can almost single-handedly hire these religious council heads. As a result, less-talented people with political ties to Kadima are being hired on the local level. "Meanwhile, the National Authority for Religious Services was created to increase supervision of the local councils. Spiegler spends most of his time overseeing local religious councils to make sure they stay straight, but he would not have to work so hard in the first place if quality people were hired and supervision were done on the local level by the municipalities and the local councils." Lipschitz, a senior member of Ne'emanei Torah Ve'avodah [The Torah and Labor Faithful] - a group of liberal-minded, modern Orthodox activists - said that four years devoid of policy vision had been wasted since the dismantling of the Religious Affairs Ministry. "It's a real shame," Lipschitz said. "There is a real thirst to come back to religion - not just in Israel, [but] all over the world. The state should be doing something to answer that need."