In Battle Over Israel's Key Rabbinical Posting, Ethnic Underpinnings Surface

The selection of a new head of the rabbinical courts has been vacant since August, largely due to politics within the appointment committee.

A clash between Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar may further delay the appointment of a new head of the rabbinical courts - a post that has been vacant since August.

Amar, backed by his patron, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and by Shas Interior Minister Eli Yishai, wants Rabbi Binyamin Atias, the brother of Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias, for the job.

Tomer Appelbaum

Sources in Shas said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also supports Atias's candidacy.

Neeman's choice is Rabbi Israel Weiss, the former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, but he is unlikely to be approved by the Rabbinical Judges Appointments Committee, scheduled to meet on March 1.

In other appointments that have stirred strong controversy, the committee is also expected to vote on three judges for the High Rabbinical Court.

Shas has the strongest representation on the committee, but Neeman, the chairman, has veto power, as does Amar. The disagreement between Neeman and Amar over Atias has also caused discord within Shas. Some party members believe Amar should keep fighting for Atias, while others say he should give in.

Atias reportedly has more backing from Yishai, the Shas chairman, than he does from his own brother, the minister.

Officially, Shas threw its support behind Atias, a young judge from the Tel Aviv District Rabbinical Court, back in the summer, when Neeman decided to dismiss Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, who headed the rabbinical courts for 20 years.

Weiss and Atias emerged as finalists among dozens who presented their candidacy to a search committee. Since then, the fight over who will become the next head of the rabbinical courts has been deemed, in the words of a source close to the race, "ugly," and "utterly political."

Neeman has refused to speak to the media on the matter, especially about his candidate.

Sources close to him say he insists on Weiss, or at least, on filling the position with a representative of the religious Zionist movement, as Ben-Dahan was. Neeman reportedly said as much in conversations with representatives of women's organizations who expressed their concern that an ultra-Orthodox candidate would be appointed and that more ultra-Orthodox judges would also be appointed to the High Rabbinical Court, further strengthening conservative forces that oppose women's rights.

In response, a source in Amar's office said: "The Sephardim are more moderate than the knitted skullcaps," referring to the yarmulkes associated with the religious Zionist movement.

Weiss's chances are also slim because he is not officially certified as a rabbinical court judge, and under such circumstances, he would need the unanimous support of the committee.

Atias, on the other hand, trained as a rabbinical court judge under Amar in the Petah Tikva District Rabbinical Court and has enjoyed support from Shas since he was appointed a rabbinical court judge in 2007.

Although he initially sought the support of his brother the minister, Atias now enjoys independent status and direct access to Yosef's influential sons as well as to Yishai.

In a private conversation held between Neeman and Yosef several months ago, Shas' spiritual leader was unable to get Neeman to budge on his refusal to consider Atias. Yosef sent messages to Netanyahu asking him to soften up Neeman, but so far, to no avail.

Meanwhile, Atias's brother, the housing minister, has been withdrawing his support for his brother and distancing himself from efforts to have him appointed. The minister reportedly told people at Yosef's home that he "doesn't want to get involved in the matter," and that he believed the efforts being made on his brother's behalf were hopeless and "a waste of time." It appears he is concerned about possible charges of nepotism.

Yishai told Haaretz recently: "I insist on Rabbi Atias for the post. He is a very talented guy who has come very far in the appointment process in his own right. He can't be disqualified just because of his brother."

Among other candidates whose names have come up in recent months are Rabbi Shlomo Shatsman, another relatively young rabbinical judge from Tel Aviv.

It is not clear, however, that he wants the job. Sources in Shas say they have high regard for Shatsman, noting that he has a master's degree in law.

But what might draw more attention to him are his own family connections: His father is Professor Yochanan Shatsman, Yosef's personal physician.