Revenge Drives Jerusalem’s Rabbinical Race

Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat are the two puppet masters behind the rabbinical elections, fully controlling the electoral panel.

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

After 11 years with no chief rabbi in Jerusalem, two chief rabbis are due to be elected in the city after Sukkot – one Sephardi, the other Ashkenazi. The question – which appears to interest solely politicians and wheeler-dealers – is who will win: Shas or Habayit Hayehudi, who are endorsing rival candidates.

The capital has had no chief rabbi since the passing of Sephardi Rabbi Shalom Mashash and Ashkenazi Rabbi Yitzhak Kolitz in 2003. Though rife with squabbling, the election scheduled for October 21 is not over ideology or any sense of improved public service, but political one-upmanship. For Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the election may be crucial.

The question isn’t who will be elected as city rabbis – with a high wage, office and chauffeur to drive them from one ceremony to another – but which of the camps endorsing them defeats its rival. The candidates, apart from wanting the power and perks of the job, are pawns in the hands of the political faction that fields them.

The list of candidates – 10 for Sephardi rabbi, eight for Ashkenazi – closed just before the holiday, at midnight on Tuesday. As is customary in senior rabbinical elections in Israel, the list is full of familiar names, such as Lau (Moshe Haim), Eliyahu (Shmuel), Shapira (Yaakov), Deri (Yehuda) and one of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s sons-in-law.

The two puppet masters behind the rabbinical elections are Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat. The new amendments they have introduced ensure Bennett and Barkat full control over the electoral panel.

The ultra-Orthodox parties, meanwhile, claim the election process is improper and have asked the High Court of Justice to intervene. They argue that the protocol for filling the positions in effect gives the religious services minister and mayor the power to decide who will be hired for the positions, and say the electoral panel does not accurately represent the composition of the city’s synagogues.

Barkat and Bennett have promised to get a Zionist rabbi, rather than another ultra-Orthodox one, appointed city chief rabbi. The mayor, Bennett, and his deputy minister, MK Eli Ben Dahan, support Rabbi Aryeh Stern, who is identified with the religious-Zionist camp, for the position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

For Stern to be elected, the election must take place as scheduled or in November at the latest, as he is turning 70 at the end of the year and this will disqualify him.

Barkat, Bennett and Ben Dahan have also decided to field a former Israel chief rabbi, the ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Amar, for the city’s Sephardi chief rabbi.

Shas has been boycotting Rabbi Amar since the elections for the Israel chief rabbis, and he is especially hated by the party’s Council of Torah Sages. Bennett and Ben Dahan – who lost that campaign – decided to be Amar’s political patrons and endorse both him and Stern.

Why did Bennett, Barkat and Ben Dahan decide to field candidates for both chief rabbis? Mainly because they can. The electoral panel enables Bennett to humiliate Shas, just as Shas humiliated Habayit Hayehudi in the election for Israel’s chief rabbis.

Bennett and Barkat tried to reconcile Amar and Deri, to ensure Shas’ support for Amar’s candidacy, but failed, mainly because of Shas.

So, earlier this week, almost overnight Amar – who had been the closest rabbi to Shas’ spiritual mentor Yosef, and to Shas – became a candidate for religious Zionism.

Shortly before the candidates’ list closed, however, another candidate – Safed’s Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu – submitted his candidacy. Apparently he has supporters in the electoral panel and is the only one who can threaten Amar’s chances.

Rabbi Eliyahu and Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, who is running for Ashkenazi chief rabbi, have both refused to heed the religious-Zionist movement’s decision to rally behind Stern’s candidacy.

In the past, Barkat and Bennett were inclined to advance Eliyahu’s candidacy, but reneged due to the public outrage that arose over the ultra-rightist Safed rabbi’s candidacy. Both Barkat and Bennett are afraid of losing liberal, secular and religious voters.

Disappointed, Eliyahu submitted his candidacy anyway and is relying on the votes of various representatives in the electoral panel.

Another sudden twist may enhance his chances. Members of the ultra-Orthodox, Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism party, which could not be further removed from Eliyahu’s nationalist views, have indicated they would support him. This is because of their burning desire to prevent Amar – whom they see as too compromising in his halakhic rulings – from being elected.

Shas also pounced with glee on Eliyahu’s candidacy in a bid to block Barkat and Bennett’s candidates. So while Eliyahu, from the far-right religious Zionist camp, is being warmly embraced by the ultra-Orthodox, the ultra-Orthodox Amar is being supported by religious Zionism. All for revenge.

Shas is now focusing its efforts in two directions. One is disqualifying Stern’s candidacy, in the hope that the High Court will postpone the election until Stern is no longer qualified to run. The other direction is Shas’ support for Eliyahu.

Deri’s confidants aren’t sure whether to treat Eliyahu’s candidacy as a strategy to defeat Bennett, or as a mere tactic to force Amar to resume his negotiations with Deri over an agreement with Shas.

If Amar wins, there is no way Deri will be able to portray himself as a winner. The most he can expect is to avoid a head-on confrontation, which would expose Shas’ weakness in the post-Ovadia Yosef era. Shas will be shown up as a narrow, ultra-Orthodox, conflicted party with its wings clipped and limited political power.

Until recently, Shas’ Council of Torah Sages was the sole kingmaker of Sephardi rabbis in Israel. Now the party cannot even reach an agreement on one candidate out of 10.

Deri’s worst nightmare is Amar as chief Jerusalem rabbi, with the sparkling robe and all the public prestige. Unless they bury the hatchet, a vindictive Amar in his new post will continue to erode Shas’ power and perhaps even sponsor a rival party.

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