Israeli Attorney General Warns Chief Rabbi He Could Be Charged With Contempt of Court

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Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, center, in 2018.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, center, in 2018.Credit: Emil Salman

Israel’s attorney general warned the country’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi that he could face charges of contempt of court for halting the work of a panel whose head had been investigating corruption allegations at religious property trusts in Jerusalem.

Rabbi David Lau removed Rabbi Shlomo Shtasman as head of the Jerusalem rabbinical court property trusts in December 2018, but promised the High Court of Justice to let him pursue some of his investigations in his new position in Tel Aviv. Lau recently reassigned another member of the panel, halting its work.

In March 2018, Shtasman had appointed a receiver to Etz Chaim, one of the largest of the city’s religious property trusts, known as hekdeshot in Hebrew. (A hekdesh is a legal entity, usually dating back to the Ottoman era, that holds property designated for a specific purpose, like educational institutions or synagogues.) The receiver wrote a report accusing it of corruption amounting to millions of shekels. In July 2019, five members of Etz Chaim were arrested on suspicion of selling properties held by the trust at below-market prices to associates or even to themselves, without allowing the institutions supported by the trust to benefit from the proceeds.

Shimon Yaakobi, the rabbinical courts’ legal adviser, accused Lau of ousting Shtasman in order to obstruct his investigation and to help Lau’s confidants. Yaakobi asserted in a letter that one of the heads of Etz Chaim, Tzvi Braverman, had advance knowledge of Shtasman’s removal, which members of Yaakobi’s staff said points to prohibited interference in the panel’s work.

The matter eventually reached the High Court, leading Deputy Attorney General for Constitutional Affairs Ran Nizri to halt Shtasman’s reassignment. Justices Neal Hendel, Yosef Elron and Yael Willner approved an agreement permitting his transfer to Tel Aviv while allowing him to continue as head of the Jerusalem panel on issues relating to a few prominent hekdeshot in the city, including Etz Chaim.

About a month ago, Lau approved the removal of Rabbi Ido Shahar from the Jerusalem panel without replacing him, forcing the panel to suspend operations. Sources told Haaretz the move was aimed at preventing progress in the investigation of alleged corruption in the trusts.

In a letter sent to Lau last week, Nizri and Erez Kaminitz, the deputy attorney general for civil law, warned that the move violated the state’s pledge to the High Court and “could amount to contempt of court, with all that it implies.”

Batya Kahana-Dror, a lawyer who petitioned the High Court on behalf of a religious school that is affiliated with Etz Chaim, said that Lau “broke his promises,” adding: “The fact that within a year, the composition of [the panels] are dissolved overnight time and again suggests that [Lau] is motivated by outside interests.

In a written statement, Lau’s office said requests for comment must be handled through official channels, not the media.

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