Rabbi Ben Dahan
Rabbi Ben Dahan. Photo by Lior Mizrahi / BauBau
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Even before he started studying in religious Zionist yeshivas in Jerusalem, Eli Ben Dahan, who was born in Casablanca and grew up in Be'er Sheva, was an amateur soccer player. A forward. He retained his love for the game even when he served as an artillery officer, when he was certified for the rabbinate, and when he was appointed head of the rabbinical courts.

He admits that he watches World Cup games on a television set up in an unobtrusive corner of his office ("when there's time" ). In the same office, on top of a bookshelf full of sacred texts, opposite a photograph of the late chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, stands an impressive collection of trophies for achievements in workplace leagues.

The design of the office is likely to change in less than two months, when Ben Dahan leaves his position as administrative head of the courts after 20 years. The efforts of national religious politicians and rabbis to prevent his ouster failed.

On Friday the Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinic Judges voted unanimously for the initiative by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to "limit" Ben Dahan's term. Even Ben Dahan's fans on the committee voted in favor, which ostensibly strengthens the argument that Ben Dahan paid with his seat as part of a political deal before the vote for another round of appointments of dayanim - rabbinical court judges.

Another theory has it that Ben Dahan has to end his particularly long term because of a government policy to limit the terms of senior civil servants.

Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, were you ousted for political reasons?

I don't know.

What is the meaning of the stormy battle surrounding you? You are not an arbiter of halakha [religious law] and you don't guide judicial policy - you're in charge of the administrative aspect. It's hard to imagine a similar battle surrounding the administrator of the courts, for example.

That's true, and it's very flattering to me. I think that people who came into contact with the rabbinical courts saw that we make every effort to help everyone who turns to us in matters where sometimes the judicial aspect of the courts cannot help. I'm not so sure that the battle is related to politics surrounding the rabbinical courts, because I know that I have supporters in all religious groups, even Haredim.

Everyone except Minister Neeman?

Apparently. Since the decision to oust me was taken, I've received endless phone calls and e-mails, and I hear what people are saying about me. Neither Neeman nor anyone else can take from me what I did for the rabbinical courts.

You've headed the system for 20 years. Has it improved in this period?

Not a single thing here has remained as it was. Everything has changed, from the rabbinical court buildings to the computer systems, work methods and the treatment of the individual: dayanim, employees and clients as well. I introduced concepts of a service mentality, which nobody had heard of. For example, men who disappear in Israel or abroad and leave women here who are agunot ["chained" women who cannot remarry without a get - a bill of divorce - from their husbands].

When I came here 20 years ago there were 500 "missing" men. I introduced the hiring of private firms to find them. I came to a small department of three employees in the Religious Affairs Ministry, and today it's an auxiliary unit with more than 50 employees with pride in the unit. They know they are obligated to provide service to the people, and they are measured in these areas. The work arrangements have changed beyond recognition. There is no longer a situation in which dayanim arrive late to proceedings or leave in the middle of the day.

What has to be improved in the system?

There's always room for improvement and streamlining. I would say that it's particularly important to achieve a situation where women and men who are refused a get understand and feel that the rabbinical court is doing its utmost for them. And even if it doesn't solve their problems, that's only because its hands are tied. People have to understand and feel that - that the rabbinical court has empathy for them, that it's making an effort. That's something that still remains to be done here.

Is it a matter of empathy? Does the Torah commandment "and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment" guide all the dayanim? Aren't dayanim who feel that violence by a man is a matter for interpretation, and not always a reason for a get, dayanim who are unwilling to punish those who refuse to grant a get, a source of serious harm to women and the image of the rabbinical courts? Do they not desecrate God's name?

I have no doubt that all dayanim, all of them, come to work in the morning to judge the people with righteous judgment. You have to understand that there are different approaches in halakha, and sometimes also halakhic solutions that a dayan or a certain panel has to consider. These are approaches in halakha, and I have nothing to say on the subject, although I tried during my years here to show that that this is not a body that is hostile to the public.

There has been no situation where a rabbinical court refused to divorce a woman. The person who did or did not grant a divorce is the husband, and sometimes the rabbinical court doesn't have reasons or halakhic solutions for forcing him to grant a get.

What is your opinion of the female rabbinical pleaders in the rabbinical courts, and of the women's organizations that are battling against the system?

As far as the rabbinical pleaders are concerned, some are angry at me. I was the one who brought them into the rabbinical courts at a time when only men were allowed to plead. I went to the religious affairs minister and convinced him to open the door to women. I admit that some of the rabbinical pleaders disappointed me because they didn't understand that there are rules in the system.

You can't want to be inside the framework and then try to operate against the rules all the time, to try to bring arguments that are not related to halakha. That's a wrong approach, certainly toward the rabbinical courts. But the vast majority of the rabbinical pleaders do excellent work, and in general it can be said that they come to the proceedings better prepared and more serious than men.

Your ouster begins a political race, and it can be reasonably assumed that two months from now the person sitting in this chair will be someone for whom ultra-Orthodox rabbis are the source of his authority. Will the rabbinical court system become even less statesmanlike? More distant from the non-Haredi majority among the public?

It's hard for me to answer because I don't know who will be here. In general I don't label people according to their affiliation with one religious group or another. I know a lot of very open-minded Haredim, and there are people in the national religious public for whom the opposite is the case.

It's true that the place where a person was nurtured is of great influence, but the decisive factor is who the person is and his attitude toward the entire Israeli public, both religious and secular. You have to remember that more than 90 percent of the litigants here are not religious. That's why such a system has to appoint someone who will arrive with a statesmanlike attitude, both accessible to the secular public and willing to hear unpleasant things, too. It's hard work, and it can't be done offhandedly.

A clear qualification is administrative abilities, as well as an ability to communicate with groups that differ greatly from one another: rabbis, lawyers, the media, women's organizations, the Knesset. I appeared all the time before all kinds of groups, I appeared before the Israel Defense Forces and at the Meretz convention. Wherever I was invited.

Are you going into politics from here? To Habayit Hayehudi or National Union?

I'm not a politician, and I tried to behave that way during all my years here. Nobody, not even Shas, can claim that I rejected anyone for political reasons. Anyone who deserved it was promoted. Don't think that tomorrow morning I'm going to some political party .... I don't rule out going into politics, but it's still too early to talk. Meanwhile, if there's a group that wants to benefit from my experience, I won't rule that out.