A senior civil servant who receives his salary from the state and for many years publishes incitement toward various groups – Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, members of the LGBTQ community and others – would have long ago been dismissed, and perhaps even faced criminal charges for incitement to racism. But the rabbi of the city of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, has continued at his post for many years, paid from the public coffers, without having to account to anyone for his actions.
On Sunday, the High Court of Justice ruled that Eliyahu be subject to a disciplinary hearing before a special tribunal for municipal rabbis, after determining that the decisions of previous justice ministers Ayelet Shaked and Amir Ohana not to subject him to such a hearing were unreasonable in the extreme.
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However, the decision, which placed the question of freedom of expression of municipal rabbis on the agenda, included a disturbing ruling by Justice Alex Stein. The latter, who wrote the majority ruling, did mention a few of Eliyahu’s remarks that were “politically forbidden,” and justified the hearing. But he noted that a rabbi, although he is a public servant, is still permitted to call upon the public not to rent apartments to Arabs and may express his opposition to women singing if this is a “halakhic” message – that is, a message of Jewish law.
It’s difficult to understand how a “halakhic message” can whitewash the call of a municipal rabbi – whose salary is paid for by the public, part of which consists of Arab citizens – not to rent apartments to Arab citizens. It is also difficult to understand where is the line between halakhic statements that are inciting, and those that “include words of humiliation and incitement which are not in the realm of Torah and Jewish law.”
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Justice Yitzhak Amit, who objected to the broad freedom of expression that Stein granted to municipal rabbis, said: “The word ‘halakha’ is not a magic word that is supposed to hold back and deter judicial oversight.”
As a result, Eliyahu will be tried by a tribunal consisting of a rabbinical court judge or a retired rabbinical court judge, along with two municipal rabbis – Eliyahu’s colleagues. If the disciplinary court rules that Eliyahu acted wrongly and is not worthy of continuing in his position, it must present its findings to Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the president of the council of the Chief Rabbinate, and the chief rabbi must dismiss Eliyahu from his post. But Rabbi Yosef himself has expressed racist positions more than once. So the road to convicting and dismissing Eliyahu is still a long one.
The obvious conclusion is that the Knesset must act to immediately amend the law governing disciplinary action against municipal rabbis so that they may be dismissed or suspended, as would be done in the case of any other civil servant.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.