Strange Bedfellows in Race for Jerusalem Chief Rabbi

‘Cold peace’ between former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Shas may swing vote for capital’s Sephardi chief rabbi.

Emil Salman

A week before the election of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis of Jerusalem, two leading candidates are vying for the title of Sephardi chief rabbi – former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu. The two, as well as Rabbi Haim Amsalem, are fighting hard for the votes of the 48-member electoral body.

Moti Milrod

Amar took a major step Monday toward a cold peace with Shas, to assure the votes of the five representatives identified with that party. But the move does not rule out the chances of the extreme right-wing Eliyahu of taking the title of chief Sephardi rabbi, in a city one third of whose citizens are Arab. Haaretz has learned that in the face of massive support for Amar, Eliyahu is gathering his own impressive camp, which includes ultra-Orthodox Zionist representatives as well as the 11 votes identified with United Torah Judaism.

A petition against the elections is still pending before the High Court of Justice; however, at the moment it seems that nothing will stop the vote, set for October 21. Eleven rabbis are in the running for Sephardi chief rabbi and eight for Ashkenazi chief rabbi. The winner in each case will be the candidate who receives the most votes from the electoral body, which consists of representatives of the municipality appointed by the mayor, representatives of the religious services minister as well as representatives of synagogues throughout the capital. A single vote is enough to win, and the election takes place in one round (unless there is a tie).

No surprises are expected in the race for Ashkenazi chief rabbi, after an administrative obstacle standing in the way of Rabbi Aryeh Stern, the candidate of the religious Zionists, was removed. He has the support of Mayor Nir Barkat as well as that of Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett and his deputy minister, Eli Ben-Dahan.

Amar’s candidacy also officially enjoys Bennett’s and Ben-Dahan’s support; however, here it is more difficult to predict the outcome because both the other leading candidates – Eliyahu and Amsalem – have the declared support of the electoral body. The secular Hitorerut (“Wake Up Jerusalem”) faction, with three representatives on the electoral body, has announced that it backs Amsalem, and it seems that other members are also seriously considering supporting Amsalem.

The Yerushalmim (“Jerusalemites”) faction, with two representatives, is wavering between Amsalem and Amar, but officials in the faction say that in any case they would seek to block Eliyahu.

Eliyahu, for his part, is close to an agreement with United Torah Judaism, which is said to be dead set against Amar’s election because of a dispute years ago between Amar and the leader of the Lithuanian branch of ultra-Orthodoxy, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv regarding conversions to Judaism in the Israel Defense Forces. A less official reason for UTJ’s opposition to Amar is settling its score with Barkat.

In any case, testimony to tension between Amar and Degel Hatorah, a constituent party of United Torah Judaism, was Amar’s visit Sunday with Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, leader of the Lithuanian faction in rebellion against Degel Hatorah, who also has a representative in the electoral body.

A senior member of Degel Hatorah said in explaining the faction’s support for Eliyahu: “Rabbi Eliyahu does not come from our camp but we do not rule him out. We view him as a comfortable man; he isn’t looking to be liked by the liberal elements in the city, as unfortunately Rabbi Amar was in the past.”

United Torah Judaism tends to support both Eliyahu and Rabbi Moshe Haim Lau for chief Ashkenazi rabbi.

Eliyahu also has support among religious Zionists, apparently, and among representatives appointed by Ben Dahan. Eliyahu’s supporters are telling these representatives that Eliyahu and his family – the family of late former Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu – are going from one representative to another expressing their disappointment in the fact that Barkat has distanced himself from Eliyahu’s candidacy despite many years during which the two were close.

This indicates that Eliyahu has some chance of winning. Very cautious estimates say that Eliyahu has at least 17 votes, as opposed to 31 split between Amar and Amsalem. Members of Eliyahu’s inner circle say that he has 23 assured votes.

Meanwhile in Shas, some are saying that Amar’s visit Monday to Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef – the son of the late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – in his efforts to come to some arrangement with Shas, stems from pressure on him because of Eliyahu’s gains. Such an arrangement does not mean reconciliation or peace with Shas after more than a year of acrimony, but rather a non-belligerence agreement that will make it possible for Amar to win the post, in exchange for a promise that he will not head a party that will oppose Shas.

Shas itself has not officially fielded a candidate for Jerusalem’s Sephardi chief rabbi. Under the current circumstances, Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri reportedly personally prefers Amar – despite the bad blood between the two – over Eliyahu, with whom he has past scores to settle as well as vast ideological differences. Both Eliyahu and his father were embroiled in disputes with the late Rabbi Yosef, beginning years ago over power in the Chief Rabbinate, and on to the right wing’s fight against Shas over the Oslo Accords and Deri’s condemnation of Eliyahu’s racist remarks.

But how will Deri’s representatives cast their secret ballot? Monday’s visit by Amar to Yosef strengthens the possibility that Shas’ five votes will go to Amar. But for that to happen, and in fact for the cold peace to take hold, more declarative steps are needed – and perhaps a clear call to support Amar by the Council of Torah Sages. Rabbi Shalom Cohen, who heads the council, is Amar’s bitter rival, and it is not impossible that the position of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox against Amar will influence him. A situation in which Shas does not officially support Amar as an ultra-Orthodox candidate alongside the religious Zionist candidate Stern could weaken the commitment of Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi toward Amar, to the benefit of Amsalem and Shmuel Eliyahu.