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The Broth of Corruption in the Yeshivot

The Ministry of Religious Affairs does not bear sole responsibility for the corruption scandals that keep on cropping up in that ministry. The continual reemergence of this corruption can be blamed on officials of Israel's law enforcement agencies as well as on senior officials in the state prosecution and in the chief rabbinate. All of these officials are guilty of criminal negligence.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs does not bear sole responsibility for the corruption scandals that keep on cropping up in that ministry. The continual reemergence of this corruption can be blamed on officials of Israel's law enforcement agencies as well as on senior officials in the state prosecution and in the chief rabbinate. All of these officials are guilty of criminal negligence.

The Israel Police is a senior partner as far as responsibility for the continual reemergence of corruption in the Religious Affairs Ministry is concerned. Over the past decade when an entire series of grave corruption scandals was uncovered in connection with ministry allocations, the Israel Police has been able to come up with only one indictment - brought against a fly-by-night private organization based in Beersheba. The organization was charged with filing a false report and its indictment is a vivid illustration of the phenomenon of blaming everything on the sentry guards (instead of the high-ranking officers).

The police are constantly investigating the Religious Affairs Ministry. However, the police's investigations have one common feature: They almost never lead to an indictment. There are a number of explanations for this: The complexity of the topics investigated, the gargantuan workload handled by the police's fraud and international investigations unit, and the heavy workload of the state prosecution.

The result: If you want to steal from any state institution, your best bet is the Religious Affairs Ministry. The worst thing that can happen to directors of yeshivot if they have been caught embezzling is that the flow of their allocations will be stopped. Then again, it might turn out that even being caught red-handed does not necessarily mean turning off the allocations tap.

Another partner responsible for the negligence is the state comptroller who is not adequately equipped to deal with the challenge presented by the Religious Affairs Ministry. The standard procedure followed by the state comptroller is to investigate a given topic and then abandon it for a few years, acting on the assumption that the government agency in question will correct the flaw or flaws that the state comptroller has discovered. This method is certainly irrelevant for the religious establishment, many of whose members consider the state comptroller to be a sort of combination inspector-police officer working for the country's elite groups and consider the state comptroller's reports to be but one more example of the way Israel's biased media operate.

In 1994, the State Comptroller's Office published a highly critical report on the allocations made by the Religious Affairs Ministry for Torah cultural activities. In 1998, the country's Torah cultural organizations declared - to the Religious Affairs Ministry - 2 to 3 million fictitious Torah lessons. The evidence was in the hands of the state comptroller. The comptroller decided to investigate other topics.

The last time that the state comptroller published a report on allocations to yeshivot was in 1999. The report itself was part of a chapter on the state budget and was therefore short, politely worded and accompanied by only a few recommendations. Since that time, the phenomenon of the fictitious yeshiva students has reemerged. Only now the problem has assumed much more formidable proportions. Nonetheless, the state comptroller has not reacted. Perhaps the reaction will be published next year.

A central culprit is the Finance Ministry itself, which has just issued the harshly critical report by the ministry's deputy accountant general. Three years elapsed from the previous storm generated by the treasury in 1998 until the publication of the present report. In 2000, hundreds of yeshivot - according to the Finance Ministry's figures - robbed the state treasury of some hundred million shekels, and that is apparently only a modest estimate.

Some people claim that the Finance Ministry is so revolted by the Religious Affairs Ministry's behavior that, most of the time, treasury officials simply prefer to look the other way, in a sort of act of denial and in the hope that perhaps the ugly phenomenon will simply vanish. However, like a festering sore, corruption never just vanishes. Quite the contrary, unattended, it can lead to gangrene.

The present investigation of the deputy accountant general regarding the activities of the Religious Affairs Ministry began in early 2000. It is not clear why the investigation took so long.

Much of the blame for the persistent corruption must also be shared by the rabbis who head the ultra-Orthodox political parties. Leading rabbis in the United States have published an explicit ban on stealing from the U.S. treasury and have even determined that such theft is a serious sin that essentially amounts to desecration of God's name. For some reason, the leading rabbis in Israel have not yet published a similar declaration that would be accompanied by the clarification that anyone caught stealing from the Israeli treasury should be condemned and should receive no backing.

In the meantime, the leading rabbis in Israel are tacit accomplices, while at least some of the institutions that recognize their authority are actual accomplices in the act of stealing money from the Israeli treasury.

Religious Affairs Minister Asher Ohana is not included in the list of major partners in this corruption. He left his post as the ministry's director-general in 1999 when the previous campaign for weeding out fictitious yeshiva students was in high gear. He returned to the ministry only a few months ago.

Nevertheless, although he cannot be blamed for the corruption, he is acting too slowly to eradicate it. For example, although he was installed as minister four months ago, a system of cross-checking with other ministries has not yet been resumed, although such a system is intended to separate the fictitious yeshiva students from the real ones.

No less worrisome is the fact that Ohana is trying to promote the director of the ministry's division of organizations and institutions, Yitzhak Elharar, to the post of associate director-general of the ministry. The report of the deputy accountant general cites Elharar as being directly to blame for the cover-up of the false reports that the yeshivot submitted. Elharar should just pack up his bags and go home - and the sooner the better.

The long-range conclusion that the Finance Ministry should reach is that the problem will only be solved through the creation of an agency, preferably in the form of an authority, whose sole task would be to supervise and monitor allocations and which would have no other items on its agenda.

This Allocations Supervision and Monitoring Authority would be autonomous vis-a-vis both the police and the state prosecution. It would coordinate all monitoring activities for allocations in all the various government ministries, including those that distribute allocations to secular organizations. It would conduct the investigations and would also present the indictment sheets against the institutions suspected of corrupt practices.

No politician or ultra-Orthodox rabbi who really wants to put a stop to the thefts from the state treasury could possibly raise any objections to such a proposal. The question is, however, how many people really are interested in putting a stop to this crime.