MKs vow to monitor new Religious Services Ministry

Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin: Resurrecting Religious Services Ministry constitutes a "grave injustice."

beilin 224.88  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
beilin 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The new Religious Services Ministry has not yet begun operation, but MKs from both the opposition and coalition swore Monday to keep a close eye on its powers. Members of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee said they would act as an oversight body to the ministry, to ensure that it avoided some of the pitfalls faced by the religious councils in the past. "This is a very sensitive and delicate issue. This [new] ministry could be used to alleviate some of the current problems in the religious councils, or it could be used for other, ill effects" said Committee Chairman Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor). Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin said that resurrecting it constituted a "grave injustice." "There is an entire book on why we dismantled the ministry... I should know, I helped write it," said Beilin. "Now we are creating this monster again. The claims that it will be different, and that it will be given different powers and authority than in previous years, is naive. This monster will evolve and change." Rabbis and officials from the Progressive (Reform) Movement who took part in the committee discussion seconded Beilin's words, adding that it was their belief that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intended to transfer a number of additional powers to the new ministry in the coming months. "We could easily see a situation where each time the prime minister needs to strengthen Shas's support for the coalition, he hands another power over to the ministry," said one Reform rabbi. Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen will head the new ministry, which has been granted power over religious councils and the development of religious facilities. Other duties that the ministry held in 2003 will remain in the hands of other institutions: the Prime Minister's Office will retain responsibility for the Chief Rabbinate and the Conversions Court; the Justice Ministry will preside over the rabbinical courts and non-Jewish religious courts; and the Education Ministry will continue to be responsible for institutions of religious learning. Representatives of the Prime Minister's Office told the MKs that the ministry's powers were not likely to be expanded in the near future. "The establishment of this ministry has been a long process. We have been working on it for more than a year and a half," Cohen said. "All the accusations that have been leveled - that the ministry was created as a bribe - are totally unfounded." Cohen added that he would use his authority as minister to eliminate the red tape involved in many of the religious processes, regardless of the religious background of those involved.