Israel's Chief Rabbi Chooses Brother-in-law to Replace Fired Judge Who Probed Corruption, Sources Say

Rabbi David Lau reassigned rabbinical judge Shlomo Shtasman after the latter sought to investigate corruption in an ultra-Orthodox property trust. Now, sources say Lau wants a relative to take Shtasman's position

File photo: Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau speaks at an event in Jerusalem, July 2018.
Emil Salman

Chief Rabbi David Lau, who oversees the rabbinical courts, plans to appoint his brother-in-law following the reassignment of a judge who sought to investigate corruption in ultra-Orthodox nonprofit groups, rabbinical court sources said.

If Lau follows through with the appointment, Rabbi Mordechai Ralbag, would head the rabbinical court for property trusts (hekdeshot) in Jerusalem. Both Lau and Ralbag have denied the report.

Haaretz reported on Monday that Lau had reassigned Rabbi Shlomo Shtasman, the rabbinic judge who had headed the court, after the latter sought to investigate irregularities and corruption in Etz Haim, one of Jerusalem's wealthiest, most well-known historic hekdeshot – a legal entity, usually dating back to the Ottoman era, that holds property designated for a specific purpose, like educational institutions or synagogues.

>> A rabbinical judge probed graft allegations against ultra-Orthodox trust. Then Israel's chief rabbi fired him

At the chief rabbi's request, Shtasman was reassigned to head the Tel Aviv rabbinical court for hekdeshot, contrary to the opinion of the rabbinical courts' legal adviser, Shimon Yaakobi, who claimed that Shtasman had been threatened by "people involved in cases he was hearing."

Shtasman was replaced at the Jerusalem court for hekdeshot on an interim basis by Rabbi Yekutiel Cohen, who is over 70 years old and is expected to retire soon. According to several sources familiar with the matter, Cohen is to be replaced by Ralbag, who was appointed chairman of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court – a task akin to a court president – in August.

In all other rabbinical courts in Israel, the court chairman also heads the court for hekdeshot, but public protest over the appointment led to the Justice Ministry freezing it. The ministry then lifted its suspension in November and Ralbag’s appointment was approved.

Lau and rabbinical legal adviser Shimshon Yaakobi have argued over the past several days over the decision to assign Shtasman to the court in Tel Aviv. Lau sent a sharply worded letter to Yaakobi on Thursday, in which he claimed that Shtasman had threatened an employee in his bureau.

In response, Yaakobi sent the letter to Lau protesting the decision to remove Shtasman, but said there was no point in meeting about it. "I thought that before his honor would make an operative decision on the matter, it would be worth having an open and professional discussion," Yaakobi wrote to Lau. "But it now seems clear that your decision is made, whether before my letter or after it."

"Either way, I will now observe the commandment of not saying things that would not be heard," Yaakobi added, "Therefore, there's no point in having the meeting I'd asked for." He added that he has asked Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to look into the matter. In the end, however, at Lau’s request, the meeting did take place, and according to sources, it was very tense.

The Etz Haim hekdesh, which was founded 160 years ago, controlled some of the most valuable real estate in central Jerusalem up until a few years ago. However, a report recently completed by the liquidator of a nonprofit organization associated with the hekdesh states that the managers of both the hekdesh and the nonprofit acted in a corrupt manner that ended up stripping the Etz Haim institutions of its properties. According to the report, the hekdesh sold the properties to the managers or their associates at low prices, losing tens of millions of shekels in these dubious real estate deals.

Rabbi Lau's office said: "This is all cheap spin. In all hekdesh courts the head of the panel is the av beit din (rabbinical court head). Only in Jerusalem, to prevent idle talk, the rabbi (Lau) did not appoint his brother-in-law but another rabbinic judge who at this point is slated to retire in over a year."

Ralbag, through the rabbinical courts spokesman’s office, said, "Rabbi Ralbag has no connection to hekdesh issues and he hasn't been assigned to any particular (judicial) panel."