Many Shas members have recently become members and heads of religious councils in communities throughout the country, apparently due to efforts by Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi. The minister, a Shas member, has taken advantage of a new regulation that lets him make appointments if a year after elections a local authority has failed to agree on religious council members.
In some communities such as Petah Tikva, control of the religious council eases the way for Shas to appoint a city rabbi. Among rabbis waiting to be appointed are the sons and sons in laws of Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Margi told Haaretz, "No one needs to apologize that a genius like Rabbi Ovadia has raised spiritual giants like his sons."
Margi also confirmed that out of some 130 religious councils throughout the country, he has made appointments in about 45. But Margi says that only in 27 councils were Shas members appointed to the post of chairman. In some cases they merely replaced other Shas members.
Margi thus protested claims that Shas was "invading the appointments."
"As a political figure I wish I could invade the religious councils, but I cannot," Margi said. "A large part of the petitions to the High Court stem from paranoia and insufficient information."
The origins of the new regulation can be found in the evolution of the Religious Services Ministry over the years. In 2003, prime minister Ariel Sharon decided to dismantle the Religious Affairs Ministry and distribute its tasks among other ministries. However, Sharon's coalition government, which included the anti-clerical party Shinui, left behind the institution of religious councils.
Officially, the reason for the decision was to provide religious services - anything from kosher supervision to funerals and ritual baths. The unofficial reason appears more important: The religious councils served as reservoirs for political appointments, and no one was keen to end this.
Under the Likud government, the regulations were adjusted and made it easier for the prime minister to appoint the head of a religious council within six months of local-council elections.
Last year, prime minister Ehud Olmert kept his promise to Shas and opened a Religious Services Ministry. The new regulations for appointments to the religious councils, approved by the Justice Ministry, state that every local council must approve the composition of its religious council or appoint a new one.
The task of forming a religious council is complex and based in part on the makeup of coalition governments.
Even before the regulations were put in place, if a local authority failed in appointing members to a religious council, 12 months after the election, the religious affairs minister was authorized to make his own appointments, including the council chairman. The salary of a religious council chairman is similar to that of a mayor, ranging between NIS 26,810 and NIS 33,500.
Most local councils held elections a year ago, and Margi is now often surrounded by party functionaries or supporters. Party members are also lobbying the other Shas ministers and their aides.
A pundit at the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Bakehila, Ya'akov Rivlin, described Shas supporters as "all being drawn like bees to the sweet honey of the religious councils. A rumor has spread that a bunch of jobs are being given out, and only fools will not be attracted by the shiny booty."
With some justification, Shas sources say the party is not doing anything its predecessors didn't do, especially the National Religious Party, and Likud when Sharon was prime minister. All of them used the religious councils as a means for providing supporters with easy jobs.
But in some local authorities observers say Margi has taken advantage of the new regulations and has delayed the approval of councils proposed by the municipalities. This would put him in a position to appoint their chairman.
Other religious parties like United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi are furious that Shas is "taking over" what they claim to be "our communities."
MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) said that "when the government was set up there was an understanding between Habayit Hayehudi and Shas where the status quo would be preserved, except in special cases, where discussions would be held. Unfortunately, there are those in Shas who are not keeping these agreements and are stirring trouble in the local authorities in order to push the National Religious Party out."
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