Analysis |

Rabbi Elon's Conviction Reflects Israel's Splintered Religious Zionist Community

The claim that the community constitutes a unified 'public’ is a thing of the past. It has divided into several tribes.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The verdict by Judge Hagit Mack-Kalmanovitch can be summed up in a sentence: Rabbi Mordechai Elon indeed committed forcible indecent acts against a student. But the implications of his conviction are a much larger story than one rabbi’s crimes and one student’s tragedy. The verdict decides the outcome of an epic conflict that erupted three and a half years ago between rabbis who once belonged to the same community but now have little in common beyond the holy war both sides are engaged in. This is a story with formative, almost religious ramifications for the community mistakenly known as the “national religious,” or religious Zionists.

Elon can still appeal his conviction, but for now, he is presumed guilty rather than innocent. This means the senior rabbis who formed their own tribunal to investigate and judge Elon – members of a group called Takana, which first revealed the allegations against the once-revered rabbi – were correct. Thus it seems they now deserve praise, even from the jurists who initially assailed them.

Takana’s members include senior rabbis with tens of thousands of followers, along with jurists and other public figures. From its inception, the forum has sought to prevent wrongdoing that the state authorities probably couldn’t have prevented on their own. But the Elon case also showed how easily good intentions could be polluted by gossip, infighting, self-righteousness, hypocrisy and jealousy.

In a statement yesterday, Takana said the trial wasn’t about the same allegations its tribunal investigated. That, to put it delicately, is a half-truth. Takana worked closely with the police and prosecution, urging the witnesses who testified before its tribunal to testify to the police as well. One Takana rabbi even drove a complainant to the police station to file a complaint.

Yet at the same time, even as they cooperated with a Yedioth Ahronoth journalist in preparing a front-page story with graphic details about Elon’s behavior, Takana members refused to give the police details from Elon’s confession to the tribunal (a confession whose existence Elon denied). Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, who sat on the tribunal, feared that doing so would damage its credibility and insisted Takana was an autonomous body that owed no one an accounting.

The bottom line is that Takana won. In the eyes of both the jurists and the religious public, it has been proved right.

Politically speaking, Elon’s conviction is less dramatic than his acquittal would have been. An acquittal would essentially have convicted many senior rabbis of slander. Elon still has support from some senior rabbis like Chaim Druckman and Shlomo Aviner, along with a few politicians and hundreds of his former students. But most of his former students abandoned him following Takana’s accusations and his subsequent indictment.

Elon’s conviction comes two weeks after religious Zionist candidates lost the Chief Rabbinate elections to their ultra-Orthodox rival. The community’s rift over the Elon case wasn’t ideological the way its failure to unite in the Chief Rabbinate elections was, nor are the rival camps in this case the same as they were in the rabbinical elections. Elon’s rabbinical investigators and judges included both supporters and opponents of Rabbi David Stav, the most prominent of the failed candidates for chief rabbi.

Nevertheless, both incidents produced similar outcomes. They deepened the religious Zionist leadership crisis and returned the community’s rabbis to their true proportions – as leaders of particular towns or institutions rather than people authorized to speak on behalf of an entire community. And the religious Zionist community itself has effectively splintered into several tribes. The claim that it constitutes a unified “public” is now a thing of the past. Both the official rabbinate and individual religious Zionist rabbis are much less sacred today - this may be the Elon case’s most important result.

When the case first broke, the shock was complete. Rifts in the religious Zionist community had occurred before, but this case divided the community more than ever. Which side were you on? Which rabbis did you believe? To whom did you listen?

At that time, such questions came as a surprise. Today, nobody is surprised anymore.

Rabbi Mordechai Elon outside Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court before his trial in December last year. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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