Rabbi Yona Metzger, the man who was the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel from 2003 to 2013, is going to jail. Although he pleaded guilty to charges of fraud, breach of trust and tax offenses — which earned him a 3.5 year prison sentence and a fine of $1.3 million — he was actually charged with far more serious moral, ethical and financial crimes, which he was alleged to have carried out while exercising the extraordinary power of the rabbinate over the religious bureaucracy of the State of Israel.
Among other things, Metzger is alleged to have stolen a portion of a donation to an organization that provides food to poor children, pocketing about one quarter of the 105,000 shekel gift. In another “deal,” Metzger and another rabbi allegedly received $380,000 to convert the children of a Russian businessman who had made aliyah. Metzger is said to have pocketed $180,000 of that sum. And he is also alleged separately to have received $500,000 in bribes disguised as gifts in 10 cash payments.
Metzger has been under a cloud of suspicion for corruption since 2005. And while justice will now be served in some fashion, Metzger’s case is another disturbing example of the corruption that seems to permeate Israeli politics.
We expect more from our rabbis, and certainly expect more from the chief rabbi, a position that intimately entwines the religious and political realms. So it is disturbing to learn that Metzger was acting like an oily ward boss, allegedly skimming 30 to 40 percent of donations to charitable organizations in exchange for his support of those groups. He reportedly even sent his driver out to pick up the bribes.
As a politician, Metzger is the highest Israeli official convicted of corruption since former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went to prison a year ago to serve a 19-month sentence for bribery. And his conviction comes at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is juggling several scandals of his own, including a much publicized police investigation.
None of this is likely to change the status quo in Israel. But before the corruption concerns are dismissed as unimportant — and the argument is made that Israel has more consequential things to worry about — it might be useful to recall the events of 1977.
That was when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned from office after reports surfaced that he and his wife held a foreign bank account. While the foreign bank account was illegal at the time, no one challenged the fact that the money in that account was legitimately theirs.
If Israel and its leaders are truly to serve as a light unto the nations, they need to do so untainted by the glare of scandal and away from the disquieting image of politicians and moral leaders with their hands in the cookie jar.