Analysis

Once Israel's Power Brokers, Kabbalist Rabbis' Influence Is Waning

Tycoons, politicians, senior officers and criminals used to form the inner circles of some leading rabbis; now they meet in prison.

Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, center, in the Supreme Court in November, 2015. His appeal for a reduced sentence was turned down and he will start his one-year term next month.
Olivier Fitoussi

They went arm in arm, the young, charismatic Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, forcefully holding onto the rising tycoon Jacky Ben-Zaken. Together they strode the airport walkways, together they boarded the plane and sat next to each other. Together they got off and walked, arm in arm, as they had every year since 2008, on a journey led by Pinto of thousands of his followers to pray at the grave of a righteous man buried in Belgium. “The rabbi saved me from bad deals,” he told an interviewer at the time, speaking of Pinto’s ability to heal the sick.

Pinto and Ben-Zaken will meet again, but this time in prison. Pinto is serving a year behind bars for bribing police Brig. Gen. Ephraim Bracha, while Ben-Zaken will begin serving a sentence in December for other offenses – stock manipulation and fraud.

This might symbolize the end of a decade-long social phenomenon: kabbalistic rabbis who count among their followers senior financial figures, politicians, celebrities, attorneys and even senior officers in the police, army and Shin Bet security service. Huge, lavish parties, religious celebrations, rabbis taking advantage of every opportunity to demonstrate power and big money.

At the top of the list were rabbis like Yaakov Israel “the x-ray” Ifergan, Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira (who was murdered in 2011) and Rabbi Haim “the milkman” Cohen among others. These kabbalists became rich as a result of gigantic contributions by businesspeople. Abuhatzeira’s wealth, for example, was estimated at 1.3 billion shekels ($344 million).

The circle around Pinto included former Partner Communications major shareholder Ilan Ben-Dov and billionaire Joseph Schottenstein, as well as ministers and Knesset members, including the late Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Zionist Union co-chair Tzipi Livni. Figures in Ifergan’s orbit included former controlling shareholder of the IDB group, Nochi Dankner, businessman Mody Kidon, advertiser Yafit Greenberg (“G. Yafit”), former Likud MK and cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. The media was also involved – Ifergan officiated at the wedding of Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes, for example.

The connection between money and religious fervor is not obvious. But in a country where religion is so deeply ingrained in the general consciousness and so significant in the corridors of political power, it should come as no surprise that worship of this or that rabbi is regarded with tolerance.

The followers of these rabbis became an exclusive club, with entry restricted to people with power or money. Access to ordinary folks was denied. With the rabbi at the center, a widespread system of connections among members of the rabbi’s circle was created. A tycoon meets a bank head, who introduces him to an advertising lynchpin, who cooperates with a lawyer who represents a criminal. Yes, quite a few criminals were among the followers of the rabbis, and in some cases the rabbis acted as mediators with the underworld. Pinto’s complications and the amount of influence he had with senior police officers highlighted the severity of the problem.

But in recent years the phenomenon seems to be fading. Here and there events still show the presence of these kabbalists in our lives – for example, the blessing that Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev asked from a kabbalistic rabbi by the name of Netanel Hacohen for the success of Israel’s Olympic team in Brazil. But their dominance has disappeared.

Why did this happen? First of all, the tycoons are no longer tycoons. For example, Dankner got himself into deep trouble and now he, like Pinto, his former friend, has been convicted by a court of law and could be facing some months in jail. Other tycoons, who were harshly criticized for financial haircuts or problematic conduct, now prefer to lower their profile and are keeping away from the followings of such rabbis, including at huge events.

Big changes have also taken place among the rabbis. Pinto still has a core of loyal followers despite his entanglements, but his following is not what it was; Ifergan’s standing has also suffered among other things because of a messy political face-off in the Negev town of Netivot with another kabbalistic figure, Rabbi Yoram Abergil. “The milkman” got into trouble over the content of tapes leaked to the Internet, Abuhazeira was murdered by a mentally ill man and his son has taken over his work.