NRP Says Shas Has Taken Control of Petah Tikva Religious Institutions

Whoever placed the photographs of Israeli chief rabbis in a corridor of the Petah Tikva religious council building seems to have messed up the chronology. Right next to the black-and-white photograph of the founding father of religious Zionism - the first of the chief rabbis, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who took up the post before the establishment of the state - is a color photo of the spiritual leader of Sephardi ultra-Orthodoxy, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The photographs represent the old and the new faces of the Petah Tikva religious leadership, as religious Zionists begin to lose their long-held grip on the city that had been the symbol of religious Zionism since Kook's days in the 1920s.

Petah Tikva is one of several cities - including Ramat Gan and Haifa - where religious Zionist parties like the National Religious Party and Habayit Hayehudi have lost control of the religious councils. Many Shas members have become members or heads of religious councils in communities throughout the country, apparently due to efforts by Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi. The minister, a Shas member, has taken advantage of a new regulation that lets him make appointments if, a year after elections, a local authority has failed to agree on religious council members.

This is another sign of the rise of ultra-Orthodox influence, as religious Zionism splinters and weakens.

Religious Zionist leaders had until now retained their hold on Petah Tikva, where Shas control of the religious council eases the way for the party to appoint a chief rabbi for the city. But now, for the first time, the NRP has one foot outside the ruling municipal coalition.

Margi has appointed Ashdod native Shimon Biton as head of the religious council in Petah Tikva. Biton is close to several Shas activists and Petah Tikva Mayor Yitzhak Ohayon, who is not a Shas member. Biton has been in office for three weeks, but he is starting to make waves only now, because he recently told Ofer Avraham, the NRP-affiliated director general of the religious council, that his office was slated to become the council's marriage division and that Avraham would have to find a new office. Biton has also announced that Avraham's secretary works for him now.

The NRP sees this as an attempt to humiliate Avraham. Biton's appointment, though, is only the warm-up round for the real battle between the religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox: the Petah Tikva chief rabbinate.

The city hasn't had a chief rabbi since the March death of Rabbi Baruch Shimon Solomon, who held the post for 30 years. Solomon's son, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Solomon, is running for the post and is seeking the support of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis. It looks like the solution may be to appoint a second chief rabbi; Shas and the municipality have already decided that the city should have an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi chief rabbi, even though the latter post has been vacant for the past 14 years.

Some have speculated that Biton won Margi's support so that Rabbi Binyamin Atias, brother of Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias of Shas, could be appointed Sephardi chief rabbi of Petah Tikva. Some NRP officials have been trying to win the appointment of another candidate, Rabbi Ratzon Arusi, the chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono, but the mayor said he reached a deal with the party under which Arusi would not be the next chief rabbi.

Margi said he barely has anything to do with appointing rabbis, and Biton said he has never been affiliated with Shas and said he was not appointed as a way of making Binyamin Atias city rabbi.