How a Secular Town Almost Got a Mikve

Or how Shas has resurrected the Religious Affairs Ministry

The plum was "minister of religious affairs in the Interior Ministry."

What it does is restore to the religious party control over about half of the religious services it had controlled at the now-defunt Religious Affairs Ministry, when it existed.

In practice, what it means is that Shas controls the religious councils, and therefore, among many other things, the mikves (Jewish ritual baths).

Why did Shas want control of the mikves, communal baths used to wash away spiritual blemishes by immersion?

The answer lies in the north. It lies in the town of Kahal, a small secular town overlooking Lake Kinneret that four years ago bitterly fought off a Religious Affairs Ministry plan to build a mikve there.

Kahal is not the only town in Israel that choked on the religious affairs largesse. Mevo Betar, which consists of secular and religious families most of whom have passed the age of requiring ritual immersion, didn't want one either.

This is what happens when you have an NIS 100 million budget to build mikves, but don't actually need NIS 100 million worth of them. You find yourself scrabbling about desperately for places to build them.

This is how it is when coalition agreements were signed with Shas, back when it was controlled by Arieh Deri, a man who didn't dwell on the economic logic of agreements or whether they were needed. This is how it is when Israeli governments are willing to pay almost any price to assure a stable coalition, at the expense of the taxpayer, of course. This is how it is when the religious parties get coalition-agreement money and do with it as they please, free of controls or supervision.

Only in 2004, when the Religious Affairs Ministry was disbanded and its construction operations were transferred to the Housing Ministry, did the facts start floating to the surface.

Facts surfaced about two tenders - one to build NIS 100 million worth of mikves, and an NIS 50 million to renovate mikves. Facts about the bizarre handling of the two tenders, which third-party experts (hired by the Housing Ministry to look into what the dickens happened) found they had cost the state 30 percent more than necessary. In other words, at least NIS 32 million were wasted on the tenders, through exorbitant payments to contractors who were subjected to no supervision.

How do you hold a tender and wind up paying 30 percent above the usual market price? Only the Religious Affairs Ministry knows for sure. Since it was dismantled in late 2003, and since the ministry officials involved in Mission Mikve later claimed the documents had been lost when the ministry was abolished, we may never know. The National Fraud Squad gave up on answering the questions too, and decided to close the case.

But hints to the truth may be found in the fact that the Religious Affairs Ministry appointed two inspectors to oversee the construction of the 100 mikves. These two individuals approved almost any demand that the contractors raised.

Another clue arises from meetings held at the Religious Affairs Ministry, after the tenders were finalized, approving vast additions to the scope of construction approved in the tenders. The contractor was present at these meetings.

Yet another clue lies in the fact that the contractor who won the main tender, Akiva Aton, who owns the company Yuval Hayarden, ultimately received every penny he was owed by the state.

When the big picture of the mikve tenders was exposed in all its filthiness, the accountant-general at the Finance Ministry tried to stop the payments to the contractors, but the attorney-general intervened and the ministry was forced to hand over the money.

Akiva Aton commented: "Representatives of the company were invited to professional meetings at the Religious Affairs Ministry, at which they delivered reports and findings with regard to the work the company was carrying out were discussed. Thereafter, they left the meeting, which continued without them. The prices we offered were cheaper than the market rate, which is why we won."