A rabbi who has repeatedly made anti-Arab statements and is considered one of the most fundamentalist religious Zionist rabbis in the country has won the support of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat as the city’s next chief rabbi, according to sources who have spoken to Barkat about the issue.
The family of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who now serves as chief rabbi of Safed and is the son of the late Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, publicly endorsed Barkat’s candidacy as mayor.
Barkat's office said he is not promoting Eliyahu's candidacy.
“Barkat isn’t working for any particular person, but for the issue, and is dealing only with advancing the principle of a Zionist chief rabbi, not the appointment of any specific rabbi,” the mayor's office said in a statement.
“The mayor has espoused the principle that in a city where 70 percent of the Jewish residents are non-Haredi, there ought to be a chief rabbi from the Zionist sector alongside a rabbi from the ultra-Orthodox sector.
Over the last eight years, Barkat has petitioned the High Court of Justice several times to stop a process that would have led to the appointment of two Haredi rabbis, until he managed to bring about a significant change in the process of electing the rabbis geographically, by means of community administrations that will ensure representation to all the city’s residents and enable the appointment of a Zionist rabbi.”
Before the election, Barkat promised the religious Zionist community, which largely supported him, that he would work for the election of a religious Zionist as one of the city’s two chief rabbis, posts that have both been vacant for more than a decade. The other chief rabbi would presumably be ultra-Orthodox, given Jerusalem’s large Haredi community.
A forum of senior religious Zionist rabbis eventually agreed on an Ashkenazi candidate, Rabbi Aryeh Stern. But sources who have spoken to Barkat about the issue recently were told that he would back Shmuel Eliyahu because he thought the odds of getting a religious Zionist elected to the Sephardi post were better than getting one chosen as the capital’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi.
Ilan Kaminetsky, who chairs an association of religious Zionist synagogues in Jerusalem and met with Barkat this week, said his impression is that the mayor isn’t committed to Eliyahu. He added that in his view, Stern actually has the best chance of being elected.
The liberal wing of the city’s religious Zionist community, including organizations like Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah and parties like Yerushalmim, vehemently opposes Eliyahu’s candidacy, to the point that some of its leaders have recently called for abolishing the post of municipal chief rabbi altogether.
“For more than a decade, the city hasn’t had a [chief] rabbi, and for almost 20 years, it hasn’t had an active [chief] rabbi," Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah heads Shmuel Shattah and Hanan Mandel wrote in a letter to Barkat last week. "Nevertheless, the city hasn’t ceased to provide religious services or to function.”
They propose abolishing the post and using the money to fund more community rabbis.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, secretary of the municipal Yerushalmim party, said the city hasn't suffered from not having a chief rabbi and doesn't need one "who will send Jerusalem backward" or is "merely seeking provocations," he said.
During his term as chief rabbi of Safed, Eliyahu has issued religious rulings forbidding Jews to rent apartments to Arabs or foreign workers, and has called for Arab students to be ousted from Zefat Academic College in the city. He has also come out against teenage girls from religious families joining the army.
He has said some of the comments attributed to him were taken out of context and some he never made. All the same, they sparked a criminal investigation ordered by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, which was closed without an indictment.
Over the summer, Weinstein said he opposed Eliyahu’s “inappropriate” candidacy as Sephardi chief rabbi, a post to which he was not ultimately appointed.
Eliyahu recently circulated a letter to principals of religious girls schools saying he opposes military service by women and urging schools not to cooperate with organizations that encourage religious girls to enlist.
After the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, he called for “taking revenge on the secular by returning their children to religion.”
He also faced a corruption investigation, which was also ultimately closed, over accusations that he gave civil servants false certificates of rabbinical ordination to enable them to get pay raises.
Barkat is considered close to the Eliyahu family.
In October’s municipal election, he was publicly backed by the widow of the late chief rabbi, who died in 2010, and by his former bureau chief. In an interview with Haaretz shortly before the election, Barkat said he admired Mordechai Eliyahu “very much, and he influenced my life – in the positive sense, of course.”
Over the past few days, Barkat has held several meetings on this issue with city council members and others, including Haim Druckman, a prominent religious Zionist rabbi. Eliyahu’s biggest backer on the city council is thought to be Aryeh King, whose United Jerusalem faction is a member of Barkat’s coalition.