Turning Back the Clock on Religious Services

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The Israeli religious courts are being handed back to the ultra-Orthodox parties - will they adhere to professional standards?

The Yamina Party, headed by former minister Naftali Bennett, has launched a fierce attack on the prime minister for transferring control of the Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Judges from the Likud to the Shas party as part of their coalition agreement. Unfortunately, the argument has focused solely on sectorial struggles between the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist communities over the identity of the judges appointed to religious courts, and has ignored the destructive effect this change will have on the daily operations of the courts and the services it provides to the public.

From the establishment of the state until 2004, the religious courts were an auxiliary unit of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In 2004, due to demands from the Shinui party, the ministry was disbanded and authority over the religious courts was transferred to the Ministry of Justice. A ministry to oversee religious affairs was re-established in 2008, this time as the Ministry for Religious Services, but the religious courts stayed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. Following the 2015 elections, the rabbinic courts were returned to the Ministry for Religious Services, but it was determined that the head of the judicial appointments committee would not be the minister for Religious Services, but rather Yuval Steinitz from the Likud, then the minister for National Infrastructures, who was selected to chair the committee as a compromise candidate.

Now, it has been decided to complete this circle and to return control of the Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Judges to the Ministry for Religious Services, thus ensuring that the new committee chair will be the minister, Ya’akov Avitan (Shas).

The transfer of the rabbinic courts to the Ministry of Justice led to many positive developments. For years, the courts had suffered from a culture in which judges turned up late, or not at all, for hearings, and sessions were often cancelled to the chagrin of those who had shown up to for their cases to be heard. To prevent this phenomenon, it was decided, some 50 years ago, that judges would declare, as a condition of their appointment, that they would live close to the court over which they would preside and that failure to do so would result in their removal. This condition, however, was rarely enforced.

In 2003, the state comptroller found that 36 percent of judges did not reside in the regions their courts oversaw, and the religious court system continued to suffer from late arrivals and delays. The reason for this lack of enforcement was that the ministers in charge were almost always from the religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox parties, and were thus afraid of confronting the judges — who were also rabbinic figures — on this issue.

The transfer of the religious courts to the Ministry of Justice in 2004 brought this practice to an end. The justice minister at the time, Tommy Lapid, declared an all-out war over this issue, and began to take steps to try to get judges who did not adhere to the rules, removed. One may suspect the purity of Lapid’s intentions, but the end result was that the judges were forced to fall into line or else be shown the door, and late and absent judges became almost entirely a thing of the past.

The return of the committee chair in the current government to the Ministry for Religious Services would seem to indicate the start of a new era in the religious courts. For example, as the chair of the Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Judges, the new minister for Religious Services will soon need to decide on two recommendations made in recent months by the state ombudsman concerning judges who are identified with Shas. One recommendation is for the removal of a judge who was found to have overseen a rabbinical ordination exam taken by his son, and was then caught lying about the incident. The second calls for a disciplinary hearing for a judge who issued several public statements unbefitting his office.

During Tzipi Livni’s tenure as justice minister, proper disciplinary action was taken against judges who acted under a severe conflict of interest. One does not need to be a prophet to foresee that the new minister will politely decline to follow the ombudsman’s recommendation, regardless of the seriousness of the actions in question.

Returning the religious courts to the Ministry for Religious Services raises real concerns that the revolution that was begun in the courts will be halted, and we will see a return to their operation under “shtetl” conditions. The damage this will cause to those whose cases are due to be heard before the court will be the most serious outcome, far more important than the incessant debate over the type of kippa worn on the judges’ heads.

The article was published in Times of Israel.