Israel's civil service commissioner has recommended a disciplinary proceeding against Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz for permitting an election rally to be held in the Western Wall Plaza in support of Moshe Leon when he was running for mayor of Jerusalem
Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, maintains he didn’t know the rally would be of a political nature, but the organizers made their support for Leon and their opposition to his rival, Ofer Berkowitz, well known on ultra-Orthodox websites prior to the event. It took the Civil Service Commission over a year and a half to review the complaint, which was filed by the Israel Religious Action Center at the end of 2018, but the Religious Services Ministry now says it is not familiar with the matter.
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The law prohibits government workers from taking part in political propaganda in elections for the Knesset or the local authorities, and it also applies to rabbis who receive their (full or partial) salary from the state. Despite how long it took, the review of the complaint about Rabinowitz is considered an accomplishment, given the foot-dragging in the Civil Service Commission and Justice Ministry over numerous other complaints about political statements and activity by state-employed rabbis. The commission recently announced that such complaints against rabbis would be forwarded to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit for review.
In early November 2018, a day before the second round of the Jerusalem mayoral election, the United Torah Judaism and Shas factions in the municipality organized a rally at the Western Wall Plaza in support of Leon and against Berkowitz. The event was led by rabbis Haim Kanievsky and Shalom Cohen and attended by thousands.
Ahead of the rally, the organizers announced on ultra-Orthodox websites that Berkowitz was elected, “it could lead to the spread of his ideology that Jerusalem should be completely secular in all areas.” At the event, Cohen said, “Woe to anyone who doesn’t act in accordance with Rabbi Kanievsky’s letter,” which said that “anyone who doesn’t vote for Leon is a party to all the desecrations of Shabbat and holiness and purity.” In pictures from the rally, Rabinowitz is seen escorting the Haredi leaders.
In its complaint, the Religious Action Center wrote that in granting permission for the rally, “whose avowed purpose was to support a candidate for mayor and included a clear call to vote for that candidate, Rabbi Rabinowitz violated the law’s instruction.”
The investigation of the complaint lasted 20 months. In late July, the commission’s disciplinary department found that there was no basis to the claim that Rabinowitz took an active part in the rally, but that “he did commit a disciplinary violation by not preventing the holding of a political rally, when it was his job to do so.”
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Consequently, the commission decided to recommend that the Religious Services Ministry, Rabinowitz’s employer, “consider starting an internal ministry disciplinary proceeding.” This is a less serious proceeding than a disciplinary trial. The decision was sent to the action center but the ministry says it is not familiar with the matter.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation says Rabinowitz “presented the commission with clear evidence that he made the holding of the event contingent upon there being no political aspects, that it could be a prayer event alone, and he had the organizers sign an agreement to this effect.” It also says that after Rabinowitz left the site, “one of the rabbis took the microphone and made some seemingly political remarks.” The foundation adds, “No political activity or any other activity that goes against the nature of the site and its holiness is to be held at the Western Wall. So it has been and so it shall remain.”
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, leader of the Reform Movement in Israel, said, “Rabbi Rabinowitz is famous for frequently paying lip service to unity, but in fact he treats the Western Wall as his own backyard and as that of his patrons, the Haredi rabbis. It’s time to place the management of the Western Wall site in the hands of someone who is committed to allowing every Jewish woman and man to feel at home there.”
The Civil Service Commission has responsibility for the rabbis of the regional councils, while the Justice Ministry investigates complaints about municipal rabbis.
Attorneys Meital Arbel and Orly Erez-Likhovski of the action center say that 30 complaints filed in the past five years regarding political or racist statements or condemnations of LGBTQ people by rabbis are still awaiting a decision. “The attorney general needs to make it clear that the Civil Service will not tolerate racist and political conduct and that proceedings will be taken against anyone who makes such statements,” they said.