A fresh perspective: We need a leader

It is time for either Jerusalem Mayor or Religious Affairs Minister Bennett to step up and lead the way to the nomination of a Zionist chief rabbi.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (photo credit: REUTERS)
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett
(photo credit: REUTERS)

It is time for either Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat or Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett to step up and lead the way to the nomination of a Zionist chief rabbi for the capital city.

There are many great public workers in Israel, who do a great job applying the policy decided by others. However, there are very few leaders that are able to define important goals and then go out to reach them. These leaders are the people who end up defining the history of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel, since they are the ones who end up defining which direction this history will take.
Bennett is one of these leaders, head of the national-religious Bayit Yehudi political party, he is revolutionizing the involvement of religious Zionism in politics. Bennett is also bringing a genuinely fresh perspective on politics by staying personable and approachable, even as he is rising in the political echelon.
Another such leader is Barkat, who has turned Jerusalem around and brought the eternal capital city of the Jewish people from a negative path to a positive one filled with hope for prosperity, growth and success.
However, on one issue, these two great leaders have yet to lead the way.
For over 10 years, Jerusalem has been left without a chief rabbi.
This reality is not due to a change in policy regarding the responsibilities of the municipal Chief Rabbinate. No, the rabbinate is just as powerful. However, instead of being run by rabbis nominated through due process established by law, the rabbinate is being run by bureaucrats who were never meant to run such a powerful institution.
The post of chief rabbi in Jerusalem is also incredibly symbolic. For example, the nomination of Rabbi Shalom Messas – the former chief rabbi of Morocco and the halachic leader of Moroccan Jewry – as Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem was seen by many as granting North African Jewry, which had often been overlooked in Israel, public recognition.
The Zionist movement understands this symbolic significance. This is why in both previous election cycles for mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, a secular Zionist candidate, emphasized that he will work towards the nomination of a religious-Zionist rabbi in Jerusalem. The symbolic importance of a rabbi who embraces Zionism in Zion is clear to all, especially when many have felt over the years that the Zionist movement in Jerusalem was slowly deteriorating because of the demographic reality where non-Zionist elements (ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs) became the majority in the city.
If Barkat promised to work towards such a nomination, why has it not yet happened? Over five years ago, the religious-Zionist movement came together to decide on a candidate who will be accepted by all as the one religious- Zionist candidate. Rabbis and synagogue leaders voted for a decision that included not just the religious leaders but also the communal leaders. The decision was clear and Rabbi Aryeh Stern was chosen to be the religious-Zionist candidate for the post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Aryeh Stern is respected by all: he is religious- Zionist from the more stringent Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, with a community in the more modern area of Katamon in Jerusalem, and is considered a great Torah scholar even by the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel. He also has strong links with the secular community in Jerusalem. He is personable, approachable and is liked by all. He truly seemed to be the perfect candidate for this important job.
Our previous question now only becomes stronger: Why has there not yet been a vote on the issue of the chief rabbi of Jerusalem? Up until the last election campaign, the claim was that the issue was being blocked by the Religious Affairs Ministry that was controlled by Shas and therefore did not want a religious-Zionist rabbi. If that is the case, then those who want a religious-Zionist rabbi were better off pushing off the selection.
However, today, this issue is irrelevant. The religious affairs minister is Bennett, of the religious- Zionist Bayit Yehudi, and his deputy minister is Eli Ben-Dahan of the same political party. These people should be leading the way to the nomination of a Zionist chief rabbi for Jerusalem.
With a Zionist mayor and a religious-Zionist religious affairs minister – both great leaders – it is hard to understand why the process is still stuck. This is especially true since a recently rendered decision of the High Court of Justice called for an immediate vote on the matter by the selection committee. It warned that if this vote was be called for voluntarily, the court would itself call for the vote.
The other reason mentioned for the inability to bring the issue up for a vote was that in the past few months, election campaigns were happening both on the national level and on the municipal level. The claim was that it is inappropriate to nominate a rabbi while the country is undergoing elections and the current government, national or municipal, is a type of “lame duck” government. However, the elections have now passed. What are we now waiting for? Ilan Kaminetzki, the chairman of the association of religious-Zionist synagogues in Jerusalem, said in a recent interview that he called both Barkat and Bennett to tell them that everything was now ready to elect a religious-Zionist chief rabbi in Jerusalem. The decision of the date for the actual vote was the only thing left to be discussed.
The main issue here, in my opinion, is very simple. We need a leader.
The Jerusalem Municipality is blaming the Religious Affairs Ministry for not moving forward with the process. The ministry is blaming the municipality. In a process in which various institutions are involved, it is very easy to throw the blame at another institution.
However, if a leader takes this issue and pushes it forward, then all of these institutions would fall in line. If Bennett decided that this issue was of great importance and publicly called for a vote, the municipality would work with him to make it happen. If Barkat would do the same, the ministry would also work with him. The only question left is to know which of these leaders will get out of their passive mode and move into active leadership.
The public has done everything it can do on this issue. The religious-Zionist public, which has been incredibly divided in the last few years, has found a way to unite behind one candidate.
It is now time for the political leaders to do their part.
After the great defeat of religious Zionism in the selection of Israel’s chief rabbi, it is clear that political leaders must be worried about a similar loss happening once again. However, the opportunity for victory should outweigh the fear of a loss. Unlike with the national Chief Rabbinate, there is in Jerusalem one clear religious-Zionist candidate. And unlike the national Chief Rabbinate, the selection committee today is clearly to the advantage of a Zionist candidate.
Our political leaders are kindly requested to move past their fears and show us their leadership.
The writer is an attorney who graduated from McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s honors graduate program in public policy. He is currently working as a research fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.