Corruption Charges Plague Israel’s Rabbinate

Originally published on May 9th 2014 for Al Jazeera English

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JERUSALEM: For 10 years, Rabbi Yona Metzger served as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, one of Israel’s highest religious authorities.

And during those 10 years, according to findings by a police unit nicknamed “Israel’s FBI”, Metzger took millions of shekels in bribes for “performing activities and making decisions in exchange for donations, conversions, rabbinical appointments and [maintaining] ties to corrupt tycoons”.

The highly publicised accusations against Metzger have angered an Israeli public already highly suspicious of its religious institutions. Corruption watchdog Transparency International found in a 2013 survey that 73 percent of Israelis consider its religious bodies to be “corrupt” or “extremely corrupt”.

Outraged editorialists and politicians have called for a major overhaul, or even the abolition, of the country’s Chief Rabbinate.

The rabbinate, which is paid by the state, oversees religious courts, and has jurisdiction over Jewish marriage, divorce, kosher certification and conversion. The two chief rabbis – one Ashkenazi (of European descent) and one Sephardi (of Spanish or Middle Eastern descent) – serve as the spiritual authorities and heads of religious law for Jews in the country.

The Ministry of Religious Service’s budget for 2013 was more than 406 million shekels ($117m). The rabbinate’s budget was 19 million shekels ($5m); this does not take into account the budgets of other bodies the rabbinate regulates and is involved in, such as local religious councils. The exact salaries of the chief rabbis are not public.

The rabbinate’s critics argue that giving such influence to a relatively small group of ultra-Orthodox men, whom secular Israelis cannot relate to, is a recipe for corruption.

“Israel gave the keys to the entrance to the Israeli state and the Jewish people to a few rabbis who reject the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” says Elazar Stern, a member of parliament and former army general, who is also an observant Jew.

Stern told Al Jazeera he hoped the rabbinate was not as troubled as it was believed to be. “The expectation for a rabbi is that they will not be corrupt. When you are talking about rabbis, your expectation is that they will be at the highest ethical level.”

Ziv Maor, spokesperson for the Chief Rabbinate, denies that there is wholesale corruption in the institution. “I can testify that the system is not infected with corruption; I can say this positively,” he told Al Jazeera. “There is much to improve in terms of the services being given to citizens,” Maor adds, noting that many offices and computer systems need updating.

Metzger is not the only rabbi on the chopping block. Another former chief rabbi, Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who was the Chief Sephardi Rabbi, has been indicted for fraudulently making Israeli army members rabbis, and thus raising their pay. The chief rabbi of Haifa is also being investigated for providing kosher certification in exchange for kickbacks.

Maor declined to comment on ongoing legal cases, except to say that if the Chief Rabbi of Haifa is convicted of a criminal act, he could be removed from office.

Tomer Persico, a commentator on religious affairs who teaches at Tel Aviv University, argues that concentration of power is at the root of the problem.

“I think the whole rabbinate is totally corrupt,” he says. “You’ve got good men here and there… but simply it’s a huge amount of money [involved]. With no supervision, they can just do whatever they want. So obviously there will be corruption, especially if we are talking about an organisation that has a monopoly over religious services in Israel for Jews.”

A major flashpoint in the controversy over the rabbinate’s power is religious conversion. The issue hinges on an ambiguity in Israeli law that makes many immigrants Jewish enough to become Israeli citizens, but not in the eyes of the rabbinate or the Ministry of Religious Services.

This is particularly relevant to the roughly 300,000 people who emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the mid-1990s. Many of these immigrants, most of whom consider themselves to be Jewish and serve in the army, have found that by the standards of the rabbinate, they are not Jewish or do not have sufficient documents to prove that they are.

Consequently, they cannot be married in a religious ceremony, or be buried in the main part of a Jewish cemetery.

Israeli Jews who wish to wed religiously must present their parents’ rabbinate-approved marriage certificates as proof of their own Jewishness. If their parents were not born in Israel, the process becomes more complicated, requiring documentation from abroad of their religion and/or lineage. If this is not possible, they must undergo investigation by the rabbinical courts. Israel recognises civil marriages performed outside of the country, but not inside.

Orthodox conversion, under the rabbinate’s supervision, is the only avenue that allows converts to hold religious weddings and burials. Those who convert to Conservative Judaism may be listed as Jewish in state records, but still cannot have an official religious wedding.

Many consider the rabbinate’s conversion process arduous and either avoid it, or look for shortcuts, while rumours of conversions for cash are rampant. In 1997, a well-known rabbi was caught on tape accepting $15,000 for a quick conversion. Charged with fraud, the rabbi left the country. Another rabbi implicated in the affair was acquitted.

“I don’t believe you can… buy a conversion without some layer of complexity [now],” said Seth Farber, an orthodox rabbi and head of ITIM, an organisation that helps Israeli Jews navigate through religious bureaucracy.

Rather, “the level [of corruption] has changed, maybe to what Metzger was allegedly doing: taking money for conversions by arranging it, getting you to the right guy,” Farber said.

In addition to running a hotline that takes some 4,000 calls a year from those who need help with religious services, Farber and ITIM have gone to the courts in search of accountability.

In 2003, ITIM filed a lawsuit against the chief rabbi of Israel’s fourth largest city, Rishon LeZion, for “wrongful practice”. The filing alleges that the city’s rabbi refused to register the marriages of couples who presented adequate “proof of Judaism”, instead requiring them to visit a third party who would, for a fee, provide such clarification.

A judgment in the case determined that the rabbi, Yehuda David Wolpe, was called to a meeting with the Chief Rabbi at the time, Yona Metzger, and was told to “recognise the rabbinical courts’ exclusive jurisdiction to deal with clarification of Jewishness”.

The case is on hold, and the Chief Rabbinate’s spokesperson told Al Jazeera that it is preparing a response for the court.

ITIM has also recently sued the Ministry of Religious Services, alleging that couples in some Israeli cities were forced to buy more expensive marriage certificates than required by law.

The extra fees are not large, but Farber says this sort of small-level fraud creates mistrust. “[It] distances people from this whole thing, makes them feel violated and taken advantage of… It’s not life-changing, but it’s frustrating.”

In response to the suit, a ministry spokesperson told Al Jazeera that “charging these fees [is] illegal. The ministry is working to stop the charges”.

For his part, parliament member Elazar Stern has submitted a bill that would allow municipal rabbis to oversee conversions, making the process easier. It has caused a stir in the governing coalition, and the country’s top religious men are not keen on a move that some believe could lessen their grip on power; Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi says anyone converted in Stern’s way will not be recognised as Jewish.

Ziv Maor, spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate, hit back strongly at critics who suggest Israel does not need a rabbinate. “Israel is a Jewish state, and closing the rabbinate means the state will not be Jewish. It may have many Jews in it, but it will not keep its nature, its identity,” he said.

“The image of the rabbinate is a result of its unique position,” he added. “It sits in the very middle of the great public debate in the state of Israel, regarding the relationship between religion and state.”