The state comptroller’s report and religious services

Last week, the State Comptroller’s Office issued a report on the multi-layered dysfunction of state-administered religious services.

The report details a host of defects, from the Ministry of Religious Services’ failure to appoint rabbis in 26 cities and towns, to city rabbis who violate policy by living outside the communities they are intended to serve, and nepotism in the appointment of kashrut supervisors.

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One particularly troubling finding relates to the election of members of local religious councils, the 129 bodies that, under the auspices of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, oversee matters of Jewish life in local communities throughout the country and whose power reaches into fundamental issues, including the issuance of marriage licenses, mikva use, kashrut certification and burial procedures.

According to the report, in 2017, the ministry continued its practice of failing to work with municipalities to jointly appoint members to the religious councils.

It intentionally let deadlines pass to prevent change in the councils’ make-up and employed a legal loophole allowing Minister of Religious Affairs David Azoulay to unilaterally appoint council chairmen with complete administrative authority. As of October 2017, it had failed to renew the membership of 100 of the country’s 129 religious councils, and just 59 municipalities – fewer than half of all municipalities with local religious councils – were involved in the process of appointing members who, in turn, could elect their own chairmen.

The remaining 70 municipalities include major cities like Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba.

Some local councils have had the same members for nearly a decade.

These findings only confirm what we at ITIM have known for years: that the ultra-Orthodox-headed state religious authorities use cynical means to maintain control over fundamental matters of Jewish life in Israel. They continue to consolidate their power as they employ cronyism, undermine democratic principles and ignore the needs of the broad Jewish public.

ITIM has been working for years to repair the broken religious council system. In 2015, we filed a class-action suit against those councils illegally charging fees for services. In 2016, we filed Freedom of Information Act requests to ascertain information on the councils’ make-up and financial operations. Last year, we partnered with other advocacy organizations to promote the appointment of women to the councils.

Now we are headed to the High Court of Justice.

Our lawyers are preparing a petition arguing that the provisions of the law that address the appointment of religious councils are intended to create a democratic voting mechanism to reflect the will of local residents, and that the current situation negates this intention.

Let us hope that by the time the next state comptroller’s report is published, we will have succeeded in democratizing Israel’s religious establishment by giving greater control over religious affairs to local communities – where it historically has been, where it is legally intended to be, and where it belongs.

Rabbi Seth Farber is director of ITIM (www.itim.org.il), Israel’s leading Jewish advocacy organization.