Israel chief rabbis to be elected amid bitter feuding

Sephardic, Ashkenazi religious leaders chosen Wednesday

23 July, 19:45

    Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yonah Metzger (archive) Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yonah Metzger (archive)

    (ANSAmed) - TEL AVIV - After a stormy and emotionally-charged campaign, 150 people will be called to Jerusalem on Wednesday to elect the two new chief rabbis of Israel: the Sephardi rabbi, from communities of Arab origins, and the Ashkenazi rabbi, from communities with origins in Eastern Europe and the Western world.

    The seven candidates (three Ashkenazis and four Sephardi) have courted - not hesitating to engage in 'below-the-belt' blows and insults - the favors of the 150 electors, who include rabbis, judges of rabbinical courts, mayors, two ministers and five Knesset members. Ten of the electors are women.

    The history of the Grand Rabbinate of Jerusalem dates back to the 1920s, when British Mandate authorities decided the Jews of Palestine should have two religious leaders. The distinction is one seen as outdated by many in Israel today, but remains in force through a tight web of links - not all of a spiritual nature - between the political sphere and religious institutions. The Rabbinate of Jerusalem is now at its lowest-ever popularity, disliked by secular Israelis and considered utterly insignificant by Orthodox Jews.

    In June, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger was put under house arrest after a police investigation found serious suspicions of bribery, fraud, embezzlement, money laundering, and breach of trust. The candidates themselves later enlivened the campaign as well, calling each other a variety of names. One candidate was criticized for taking part in a Buddhist ritual, while another compared the election campaign with publicity for Coca-Cola. Drawing more negative attention is the candidature of the rabbi of Safed (Galilee), Shmuel Eliahu, known for his severely anti-Arab statements. After much thought, the government legal advisor allowed the candidature but noted that if he were to be elected and the matter taken to the Supreme Court, he would not be represented by a state attorney. Ashkenazi rabbis arriving in the final round include David Lau and David Stav. The first is considered more open-minded and the second more conservative, though Stav seems determined to build bridges between secular society and the rabbinate, which manages weddings, funerals, and the supervision of food processing.

    Among Sephardi rabbis, the challenge is more of a personal nature and - reminiscent of a soap opera - has brought into question the religious-economic empire under Rabbi Ovadia Youssef, the 90-year-old leader of the Shas party. If his son, Yitzhak Youssef, wins, then the empire will be safe. If one of his rivals wins - Zion Buaron or Shmuel Eliahu - the Sephardi community will experience major upheaval.

    On Wednesday afternoon, the 150 electors will meet in a Jerusalem hotel and will be handed two voting cards. The results are expected to be announced Wednesday evening. (ANSAmed).

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