Knesset Passes Bill Increasing Number of Women That Elect Israel's Chief Rabbis

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The “Stern Law,” which would significantly expand the size of the body that elects the new chief rabbis, passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset Wednesday with a large majority: 53 in favor and only 14 MKs voting against.

The bill, sponsored and named after MK Elazar Stern ‏(Hatnuah‏), would increase the electoral body from 150, the majority of whom are rabbis, to some 200 people including a large number of women.

While Wednesday’s Knesset vote was a major step forward for the legislation, the real drama took place within the Habayit Hayehudi faction. Most of the MKs from Naftali Bennett’s party absented themselves from the vote, despite a clear decision on the matter from the party. A number of the absent MKs said they had coordinated in advance with MKs from the other side who would also not attend in order to neutralize their votes.

Only three MKs from the party − ministers Bennett and Uri Orbach, and MK Ayelet Shaked − were present and voted in favor of the bill. The absence of 12 MKs signified a revolt against party leader Bennett, and shows the deepening internal division along ideological lines within the Knesset faction.

Bennett, Shaked and Orbach represent the moderate wing, but they are only one quarter of the faction. To promote the Stern law, they worked with other groups in religious Zionism outside their party, such as MK Stern and a number of members of Yesh Atid, including Education Minister Shay Piron and MK Aliza Lavie.

Habayit Hayehudi officially, at least, supports a limited version of the proposed law in contrast to many religious Zionist rabbis who prefer to keep the committee as it is. They have been trying to advance a deal with Shas to ensure the election of present Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar for a second term, along with the election of Ramat Gan chief rabbi Yaakov Ariel as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Bennett was forced to accept the deal, although he prefers to see Rabbi David Stav, a Tzohar founder, in that post. Bennett’s support for the Stern law seems to contradict support for the Amar-Ariel deal. If the size of the electoral body grows and diversifies, with more women and fewer rabbis, then the chances of Stav for winning the post increase.

A separate law, which would allow Ariel to run for chief rabbi because under the present law he is too old to do so, may be brought before the Ministerial Committee on Legislation on Sunday.

The election of the chief rabbis is to take place in June.

Rabbi Ben Dahan.Credit: Lior Mizrahi / BauBau

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