Nepotism and Tribal Wars Still Hold Court at Rabbinical Judges Panel

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Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court.Credit: Moti Milrod

After nearly four years of false starts and repeated failure to make progress, there’s a glimmer of hope that the Rabbinical Judges Appointments Committee scheduled to convene this Thursday will finally make a large number of long-awaited selections.

These rabbinical judges (dayanim) will spend the next few decades adjudicating divorce and inheritance cases, and providing affirmations of Judaism to those who need them.

Some people have expressed cautious optimism about the choices the committee will make, since the panel is headed by a woman, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, has a record number of women on it, and the power seems to be balanced between conservatives and liberals.

However, attorney Mordechay Eisenberg – a committee member representing the Israel Bar Association – is prepared to be a party pooper, describing what happens on the panel as “horse trading.” There’s only one difference, he says: “In horse trading, you at least check the horses’ teeth. Here it’s simply, ‘Give me two dayanim on the regional [circuit], and I’ll give you two on the Supreme [Court].’”

The “regional” refers to the local rabbinical courts, which are missing 14 dayanim, while the “Supreme” is the Supreme Rabbinical Court, – the rabbinical court of appeal, which is missing five permanent judges. These missing dayanim are felt by any Israeli who has had to deal with the rabbinical court system in recent years. Over 100 rabbis who have qualified as dayanim in recent years are vying for the available positions.

Two issues were behind these years of delays. One was the failed attempt by former Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to divide the judicial pie, so that a third of the dayanim would be Ashkenazi Haredim, a third Sephardi Haredim, and a third religious Zionists. The second was a High Court of Justice petition filed by women’s organizations against the fact that political deals made by men had resulted in a male-only selection committee.

The new panel has three women – Livni, MK Shuli Moalem (Habayit Hayehudi) and veteran rabbinical advocate Rachel Levmore, a Livni appointment made possible by an amendment passed by the current Knesset.

The other members are Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef; two members of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, Rabbi Zion Algrabli and Rabbi Zion Boaron; Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar; MK Eli Yishai (Shas); and two representatives of the Bar Association, Eisenberg and Asher Axelrod.

Past and current members of the committee agree with Eisenberg that the panel is steeped in a culture of political trade-offs. “If on the Judicial Appointments Committee they say, ‘We’ll compromise; we’ll appoint one like Aharon Barak and one like Ruth Gavison,’ that’s legitimate,” said a source involved with the committee. “But when you add in the issue of sector affiliation or even family ties, it’s a whole different story.”

Nepotism is a legitimate concern, and it’s the subject of an anonymous complaint filed with the State Comptroller’s Office that’s currently being investigated. The complaint claims that the final list of candidates does not reflect those rabbis who scored highest on the qualifying exams, while there are a slew of “relatives of” on the list, including relatives of panel members.

For example, Boaron’s son is a candidate, while Lau has a cousin and brother-in-law on the list. Several other leading rabbis, including former Chief Rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger, also have relatives on the list. A source close to Livni said, “On the legal level, we have contacted the attorney general to ask how we are supposed to deal with the issue of family ties. It’s clear you can’t just appoint a relative unless there are special reasons for doing so, but we are awaiting instructions.”

But while Livni is against the appointment of relatives and will be relying heavily on the evaluations of individual candidates conducted by women’s organizations, she will still have to reach an agreement with other panel members – Haredim and non-Haredim. A candidate for the Supreme Rabbinical Court must have the support of eight of the 11 committee members, so there is almost no point voting for a contender about whom there is no broad agreement – in short, there must be “deals.”

Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari – who heads the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, and who was heavily involved in the work of the committee – remains optimistic. “There is still the sectorial issue, but I think that today the positions of the candidates are more significant than their sectorial affiliation,” she said. “The addition of more women to the panel has definitely caused a change in the balance of power, and some say it has totally reshuffled the deck.”

Eisenberg is less positive. “If we were able to focus only on the professional aspect, our work would be a lot simpler and the list [of candidates] would automatically have been shorter,” he said.

Attorney Mordechay Eisenberg in Bnei Brak.Credit: Moti Milrod

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