Habayit Hayehudi MKs Back Controversial Cleric for Israel's Chief Rabbi

Support comes despite criticism of Shmuel Eliyahu’s candidacy as Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel even within the religious Zionist movement over racist statements he has made in the past.

Most of the members of the Habayit Hayehudi Knesset faction support the election of Safed’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, as Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. The MKs have voiced their support despite criticism of Eliyahu’s candidacy even within the religious Zionist movement because of racist statements he has made in the past. Haaretz checked and found that at least seven of the 12 Habayit Hayehudi lawmakers would support Eliyahu for the post.

Eliyahu has not formally declared his candidacy and in recent weeks, he has been seeking support for his candidacy elsewhere, for example among ultra-Orthodox rabbis throughout the country. Eliyahu is accompanied on his visits to these leaders by Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Rehovot.

Although Habayit Hayehudi has not held a meeting on the matter, the issue is high on the priorities of party chairman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also the religious services minister. Bennett’s associates say that he tends to support Eliyahu but is hesitating to say so openly because of the expected public criticism that would follow. Bennett is said to have been very close to Eliyahu even before the last Knesset election, and according to one close associate “he supports Rabbi Eliyahu for chief rabbi, but it’s unlikely he’ll commit suicide over it.”

But sooner or later Bennett will apparently have to decide whether to bring the matter up for discussion and Haaretz found that if he does so, most of the faction will come out for Eliyahu. Habayit Hayehudi is the former National Religious Party, whose members adopted Eliyahu’s father, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, as their spiritual leader after he completed his term as chief rabbi.

Among Eliyahu’s supporters are all the members of the Tekuma movement, which includes Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel, deputy minister Eli Ben Dahan (the dominant figure pushing for Eliyahu in the faction) and MKs Zvulun Kalfa and Orit Strock. Also supporting Eliyahu are MKs Ayelet Shaked, Avi Wortzman and Shuli Moalem. Along with Bennett, fellow faction members MKs Yoni Chetbon and Moti Yogev are said to tend to support him, although they have not said as much publicly.

Opposition to Eliyahu is coming from Pensioner Affairs Minister Ori Orbach and MK Nissan Slomiansky. The election of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic chief rabbis, to take place at the end of the month, is by secret ballot by an electoral body, not by the Knesset.

Just as with the candidacy of Rabbi David Stav for the post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Eliyahu’s candidacy has split the leadership of the national religious movement along ideological lines. Eliyahu’s supporters in Habayit Hayehudi say his election would be even more important now in light of the faction’s decision to support Stav, which was perceived as a defeat for the conservative wing of the religious Zionist movement.

Support for Eliyahu alongside support for Stav would give balanced representation to the entire national religious spectrum, from its more liberal to its national ultra-Orthodox sides, they say.

There is major pressure on Bennett to bring the matter up for a vote in the faction. That is because the conservatives, for example the newspaper Basheva, which tends to oppose Stav and support Eliyahu, raised questions about Bennett’s decision to vote on support for Stav by secret ballot, whose results were never made public.

People in Habayit Hayehudi are said to be furious with MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) for calling on Bennett to put a stop to Eliyahu’s candidacy. Lavie received support on Wednesday for her position from Rabbi Benny Lau of the Ramban Congregation in Jerusalem, who wrote on his Facebook page about Eliyahu: “Do his public statements not undermine the foundations of democracy?” He also wrote that support for Eliyahu’s candidacy does not only involve issues of importance to Habayit Hayehudi, but “the connection to the state and to the Zionist enterprise.”

The deputy education minister, MK Avi Wortzman, openly supports Eliyahu, he told Haaretz. “I have known Rabbi Shmuel for 20 years,” he said. “I’ve seen him in the outlying areas, the Negev, the north ... always ready to come and encourage people. He is a Zionist and his children serve in the army.”

As for Eliyahu’s comments against non-Jews, Wortzman said: “I focus on things that I see as much more important.”

Kalfa told Haaretz that Habayit Hayehudi would eventually come out in support for Eliyahu and that Eliyahu’s controversial statements about Arabs “have been examined and are irrelevant.”

Yaron Kaminsky