Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi calls for judicial reform dialogue to avoid civil war


On Saturday, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called for a dialogue on the judicial overhaul planned by the government, saying it was necessary to prevent the possibility of civil war.

“All the discord and all the civil war are disturbing and very painful,” Yosef said in a weekly sermon.

“There should be a dialogue so that there is no civil war – we are all Israelis, we are all brothers,” he said.

Saying that he would not be involved in the politics of the controversial reformation, which has come to the fore in Israeli society, Yosef nevertheless said that the High Court of Justice should not intervene in religious matters, which has a Chief Rabbinate court in respect of him.

Yosef cited the admission of non-wounded items into hospitals on Passover and identified non-Orthodox conversion to Judaism as examples of the kind of issues the secular court should keep out.

“I don’t interfere [the judicial overhaul],” he said, and in the same way “you have to explain to him [justices of the High Court] that you do not interfere in matters of religion.”

The High Court is not “above” the speedy court,” he pointedly said.

During the coalition negotiations to form the government last November, Yosef said he was supporting judicial reform, which ultra-Orthodox parties made a key demand to enter the government.

“You have to [pass] the overriding clause to override these High Court rulings,” he said at the time.

Yosef is the son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late spiritual leader and founding father of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party – the main coalition partner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud. The legislation to be advanced this week includes a bill that would allow Shas leader Aryeh Deri to return to the Minister’s office despite a High Court ruling preventing him from doing so due to his corruption convictions.

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has advanced legislation aimed at weakening the Supreme Court and giving it control over the appointment of judges. He says the plan is a long overdue measure to curb what he sees as too much influence by unelected judges.

But critics say the plan will destroy Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority. They also say it is an attempt by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, to escape justice.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the past two months to protest the overhaul.

Business leaders, Nobel-winning economists, and prominent security officials have spoken out against it, military reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty, and even some of Israel’s closest allies, including the US, Netanyahu slowly argued down. Repeated attempts by President Isaac Herzog to compromise have not yielded results.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, June 2, 2016 (Yaakov Cohen/Flash90)

Last week, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the Knesset’s reading of a bill to prohibit the introduction of hametz, or porridge food items, into public hospitals during the Passover holiday. The government-sponsored bill has been fiercely contested, including from some religious groups who see it as likely to turn Israeli anti-Semitism.

The bill was also opposed by the Attorney General’s Office, which found that the legislation, in its current form, goes too far and would be difficult to defend in court. It is to be voted on by the Knesset this week.

For years, hospitals and other public institutions banned Hametz during the week-long Passover holiday – when Jews traditionally abstain from eating porridge – with some even instructing guards to search people’s bags with for forbidden foods at the doors. But in 2020, the High Court of Justice declared that hospitals could not carry out such invasive searches – after years of pressure on the government to find some compromise or pass legislation on the issue – and the court issued a similar ruling last year regarding military bases.

Also, last year the High Court ruled that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements must be recognized as Jews for the purpose of the Law of Return, and are therefore entitled to Israeli citizenship.

The bombshell decision, which overturned the long-standing Orthodox monopoly on officially recognized conversions in Israel, was the culmination of an appeals process that began more than 15 years ago, in which 12 people in the country converted to Judaism through non-Orthodox denominations. The judges stated that they had previously withheld issuing a ruling to allow the state to handle the matter, but the state failed to do so.

Haredi leaders, as well as many Israeli Religious Zionist figures, do not view the Reform movement as an authentic form of Judaism and do not recognize Reform rabbis.

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