Shas are seeking to deepen their grip over state religious institutions - opinion

The state-religious infrastructure has been used systematically to build a political power base.

 MK ARYE DERI leads a parliamentary faction meeting of his Shas party, in the Knesset, last month. (photo credit: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
MK ARYE DERI leads a parliamentary faction meeting of his Shas party, in the Knesset, last month.
(photo credit: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

It wouldn’t be a complete exaggeration to say that the State of Israel’s religious apparatus is the personal domain of former Interior Minister, head of the Shas party, and twice convicted criminal, MK Arye Deri. The slew of legislation and policies that Shas is pushing through would suggest that he is in a hurry to deepen that influence. 

With this power does come the occasional problem, and one of those may require the wisdom of King Solomon. How will Deri decide who should be the next Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel? His brother Rabbi Yehuda Deri, or the late revered Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s son, Rabbi David Yosef who also happens to be the brother of the incumbent. 

Shas has been in control of the Religious Services Ministry for 12 of the last 15 years. The Sephardi haredi party has deepened its grip over Israel’s religious and Rabbinic bureaucracy in that time. For 10 of those years, they also controlled the very powerful Interior Ministry.

Due to the localized nature of the local religious councils, the political patronage that exists within the religious and Rabbinic bureaucracy, and the political and economic leverage that the Interior Ministry has over local government, dual control of the religious services and Interior Ministries creates significant political leverage at a local and national level. 

While the question of who will be the next Sephardi chief rabbi looks like a simple story of religious nepotism and political intrigue, it is the tip of the real iceberg, and just an example of the way Shas has successfully used Israel’s backyard of religious services to build its power base. 

 ASHKENAZI CHIEF Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at an event in Jerusalem earlier this year. Who is lining up to replace them?  (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
ASHKENAZI CHIEF Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at an event in Jerusalem earlier this year. Who is lining up to replace them? (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

While the spotlight of attention with respect to the current government is on the legal reforms and their impact, the proposals it is promoting to centralize further the power of the Rabbinate and those who control it are dramatic and cannot be ignored.

Only Turkey invests more in religious services

In a recent analysis of state spending on religious services (Zman, February 16), Israel came out only lower than Turkey among OECD countries when comparing that spend as a percentage of the national budget. When you add up the cost of the local religious councils, the Rabbinate, the state-run religious courts, and other State-run religious services, it amounts to nearly 0.4% of the budget.

By way of comparison, the UK (which still has a state-established religion) spends 0.006% of its national budget on religious services. Most other democracies make no investment at all into clerics, churches, synagogues, mosques, or other religious infrastructure, although in many countries, charitable gifts to religious institutions or organizations benefit from tax breaks.

State-religious activism

The first six months of the new government have generated a flurry of policy and budgetary initiatives that relate to the country’s Rabbinate and religious services infrastructure.

There are two chief rabbis in Israel: one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi. They are appointed for a single 10-year tenure. There is a specific voting college that makes the decision which is made up of 150 public figures: Eight of them are rabbis, appointed by or part of the State Rabbinic infrastructure; 35 are mayors of cities and regional councils; 18 are heads of the local religious councils; and the rest, appointees of the Knesset and the government. By law, the election for the new chief rabbis ought to have been at the beginning of August.

Shas’s religious services minister introduced a bill to delay the elections, his reason being that it was too near to the local elections, (that take place later this year) and hence may create undue political influence on the way the mayors will vote on the candidates. Unofficially, commentators across the board suggested an alternative reason – Deri’s inability to choose between his brother or the brother of the current chief rabbi. 

In the meantime, Shas has introduced a new bill that will change the way that other state rabbis are appointed. Up until now, while the Religious Services Ministry and chief rabbis have had great influence over the appointment of municipal rabbis, the new law will give them effective absolute control over the process; so much so, that cities that don’t actually feel the need for such a rabbi will be forced to have one.

The new law also contemplates not just control over municipal rabbis, but a slew of Rabbinic appointments to the level of the neighborhood Rabbi. Multiple reports by the state comptroller have warned of the abuse of this religious patronage, revealing a picture that many of the “official” rabbis neither live near nor serve the people they are appointed to serve. 

Dr. Ariel Finklestein is a research fellow of the Israel Democracy Institute specializing in the mutual relations between State and religion. In a letter to the Knesset committee leading the legislation, he pointed to some of the problems created by the new legislation. Among the key issues included the reinstatement of tenure for all of the appointees until aged 75, and a ballooning in the number of religious functionaries, that are neither required or needed by the community, and in practice, are not held responsible by them. By his calculation, this may lead to the appointment of up to 1,000 new rabbis, which cities and neighborhoods have neither asked for, nor will really benefit from. 

Lastly, Religious Services Minister Michael Malkieli announced major pay increases for senior managers of the religious councils. According to Shahar Ilan, (Calcalist, July 30) for some, it will mean a 74% salary raise. Ilan surmises that, “The implication is a major salary upgrade for 114 religious functionaries, the vast majority of whom are political appointees of the religious parties. This plan will likely be to the satisfaction of the heads of the religious councils having a critical influence on the upcoming local elections.” 

The irony is surely not lost, that the election for the chief rabbis is delayed because it may affect the outcome of the local elections at the same time as massive pay increases for a small number of religious officials, many of whom are connected to Shas, having a potential outcome on said local elections. 

Religious patronage or Jewish identity?

One of the clarion calls of the current government has been to strengthen the Jewish identity of the country, to increase its Jewish character. 

Given the amount invested into religious infrastructure largely controlled by the haredi party Shas, one would hope that this might increase the public’s confidence in the officially appointed rabbis around the country, and of course the Chief Rabbinate.

Sadly, the opposite is the case. The public confidence in the Chief Rabbinate is at a historic low of 30%, even lower than the level of confidence in the Supreme Court at 40% (as measured in the annual Democracy Index of the Israel Democracy Institute). Sad and ironic then that the government seeks to dilute the power of one, while reinforcing the power of the other.

All Jews in Israel are affected by the monopoly on religious services. It is a monopoly within a monopoly. It’s a religious monopoly sanctioned by the state, and that monopoly is itself under the effective control of one man, whose vision for Israel as a Jewish and democratic country is at odds with vast parts of Israeli society, religious, traditional, and secular.

Ostensibly, the state-religious infrastructure has been used systematically to build a political power base, which should shed some light on the longstanding and deep political partnership between Deri and the prime minister. 

At a time of increased political and social tension, it seems hard to believe how a massive increase in the number of state-appointed rabbis paid for, but appointed over the heads of Israeli citizens, and increased salaries for a small number of politically connected religious functionaries will reduce tension, and increase a sense of affiliation to Judaism.

More likely just the opposite. Intriguing to consider what might happen, if instead, the state took these vast budgets, and empowered communities to appoint rabbis they actually want and need. Just imagine the difference it might make.

The writer is a founding partner of Goldrock Capital and the founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research. He is a former chair of Gesher, World Bnei Akiva, and the Coalition for Haredi Employment.