Israel's Chief Rabbinate Race Reaches High Court of Justice

Meretz MK seeks judicial intervention to disqualify Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu over anti-Arab rulings.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The race for Israel's Chief Rabbinate has reached the High Court of Justice, after MK Issawi Freij (Meretz) petitioned the court on Tuesday to disqualify Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu as a candidate for Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi. The court scheduled a hearing of the petition for July 22, two days before an assembly of 150 public representatives is scheduled to select Israel's next Sephardi and Ashkenazi chief rabbis.

Freij's petition comes in the wake of inflammatory remarks as well as religious rulings made by Eliyahu, who is the chief rabbi of the northern Israeli city of Safed, over the years. These include prohibitions against renting or selling properties in the city to Arabs and calling for the expulsion of Arab students from Safed Academic College.

While Freij's High Court petition against Eliyahu was the first, additional ones may be forthcoming. Multiple petitions could be combined together.

Eliyahu is one of three front-runners in the race. He continued to campaign on Tuesday, particularly among assembly delegates, despite Monday's announcement by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein that he cannot defend Eliyahu’s candidacy in the High Court. Weinstein said it was "inappropriate" for Eliyahu to pursue the position in light of the "legal difficulties" posed by some of the rabbi's remarks.

Weinstein’s announcement seems to have energized Eliyahu’s campaign rather than subduing it. Figures close to the rabbi, who is the son of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, say it might actually improve Eliyahu’s odds.

On the advice of his attorney, Aviad Hacohen, Eliyahu has not himself petitioned the High Court in the light of Weinstein’s statement, since it does not prevent him from running.

Hacohen, who is dean of Sha'arei Mishpat, a private law school in Hod Hasharon, represented Eliyahu in two previous High Court petitions, both of which were rejected, calling for his criminal and disciplinary prosecution. “On the face of it,” Hacohen says, “[Freij's petition does not warrant [our] intervention before the court. It relies on newspaper clippings. Unfortunately, the petitioner did not bother to check the facts before he submitted his petition." Hacohen said Eliyahu will respond to the court in accordance with accepted procedure, "and his response will be worthy and correct.”

In a letter to Eliyahu, Weinstein explained that the rabbi’s candidacy was inappropriate as a result of Eliyahu's inappropriate statements. Weinstein does not have the authority to disqualify Eliyahu because the positions of chief rabbi are not government appointments. The significance of the attorney general's announcement is that in the event of Eliyahu's election the state will not defend the rabbi in the High Court.

Eliyahu's office responded to Weinstein's assessment by referring to the Tisha B'Av fast day that began Monday night, commemorating the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem.

"On the eve of Tisha B'Av, the attorney general has chosen to remove the mask of official hypocrisy and trample democracy," his office said.

Weinstein "chose to hold a field court martial for Rabbi Eliyahu and made himself prosecutor, judge and hangman," and in an "unprecedented step, without authority, without a hearing, and without verifying the allegations, created a new reality in which a candidate that is not favored by the legal elite will not receive a [legal] defense from the authorities," Eliyahu's office added.

Continuing, the statement said: "The attorney general must now explain to the public why [Balad MK] Haneen Zoabi and Sheikh Ra'ad Salah [head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel] are worthy of his staunch defense, while the highly esteemed chief rabbi of a city in Israel who is also a leading candidate for the post [of Sephardi Chief Rabbi] is being attacked by the attorney general with such vigor.”

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu at a conference in Ramle.Credit: Nir Kafri

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