Election of city rabbis is fair, says religion ministry

Religious Services Ministry rejects claims process of appointing city chief rabbis is unrepresentative, open to manipulation or unequal.

Orthodox Jews synagogue_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Orthodox Jews synagogue_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The Religious Services Ministry rejected on Sunday claims that the process of appointing city chief rabbis is unrepresentative, open to manipulation or unequal.
The reaction comes in response to a ruling last week in which the High Court of Justice issued an injunction demanding the ministry explain why it refuses to make the procedures by which city rabbis are elected more transparent and representative.
According to a High Court petition of the Neemanei Torah Veavodah religious- Zionist organization filed in March this year, the current regulations governing the election of such rabbis excludes large segments of the population from having any say in their appointment, since 75 percent of the committee delegates who elect city rabbis are themselves appointed or effectively controlled by the Ministry of Religious Services.
“As far as we can see, the election committees are in fact representative and do reflect the will of the general public and the religious community in any given city,” the ministry said Sunday.
“No defects have been revealed regarding the election of representatives to the election committee and the ministry intends to defend the current process and the existing regulations.”
The current regulations, established in 2007 by the Ministry of Religious Services itself, stipulate that 50% of the delegates on the election committees for city chief rabbis be appointed by representatives of city synagogues, 25% should be appointed by the local religious council and the other 25% should be appointed by the local municipal council.
But according to Assaf Benmelech, a lawyer from Tulchinsky Stern & Co, representing Neemanei Torah Veavodah, the process for establishing which synagogues can participate in the appointment of delegates to the city rabbi election committee is effectively controlled by the minister of religious services. The same is true, he says, of the members of the local religious council.
“The only true representatives of a city’s residents are the members of the municipal council,” Benmelech told The Jerusalem Post. “But as it stands, they comprise a mere quarter of those electing the city’s rabbi. This is completely undemocratic and excludes large sections of the public, who are subject to Jewish law regarding marriage, divorce, burial, kashrut and many other issues, from the process of choosing a halachic arbiter whose decisions can influence them on a daily basis.”
The legal basis for the petition is its claim that the current system violates the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty, in that it “infringes upon the constitutional right to elect [public officials] and to be elected to [public office] in a democratic and equal process.”
The petition claims that because of the control the minister of religious affairs, currently Ya’acov Margi of Shas, exerts over the election committees, the chances of a candidate for city rabbi being elected without political connections to the ministry are negligible.
In addition, the group claims, women are essentially excluded from 75% of the seats on the election committee since they are not represented in the religious councils or among the synagogue representatives, constituting a violation of the gender equality.
As part of its response to the petition, the Attorney- General’s Office claimed there is no reason to change the procedures since a city chief rabbi is more important to the lives of the religious community than to those of the non-religious residents, and that the over-representation of synagogue and religious council delegates on the election committee is therefore justified.
“The opposite is true,” said Benmelech. “The religious community already has its own rabbis and spiritual leaders. Those who need the services of a city rabbi the most are those who are less connected with religious life and religious leaders.”
The state has four months to respond to the court’s demand for explanation as to why it has refused to amend the current procedures.
“This ruling is a strong indication from the High Court that it perceives the process to be defective,” said Benmelech. “We strongly hope that at the end of this process, the current procedures will be cancelled.”