Pinto Case Reveals the Power Of Israel's “Tycoon-Rabbi” Class

The Rabbi Pinto case reveals the great power, wealth and political influence rabbis have accumulated in Israeli society, with far too many policemen, politicians and businessmen waiting in their backyards for "wise" advice. Nahum Barnea reports.

al-monitor Rabbis are silhouetted as they listen during their ordination ceremony at the Roonstrasse Synagogue in Cologne, Germany, Sept. 13, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Ina Fassbender.

Topics covered

rabbis, rabbi pinto, israel, corruption

Oct 15, 2012

The story about Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, who was arrested last weekend on suspicion of having tried to bribe a high-ranking police officer, is only the tip of the iceberg. It was reported that the rabbi had offered the sum of $200,000 to Brig. Gen. Effi Bracha, chief of the police investigation unit. The officer reported the incident to Gen. Yoav Segalovich, who then instructed the officer to hand over the money and take all the necessary actions in order to nab the rabbi and his wife red-handed. Claiming innocence, the rabbi contended that all he wanted was to support the officer’s needy relatives.

It’s the tip of the iceberg because an intolerable reality lies underneath. A handful of rabbis, whose disciples attach superhuman attributes to them, have amassed immense political and economic power in recent years. Politicians, businessmen, senior police and military officers take pilgrimages to curry their favor. Some of these pilgrims are afflicted by superstitions. They’re convinced that the hand of a Mekubal — a rabbi engaging in the study of Kabbalah — which is placed on their hand will purge them of their sins, bringing them wealth and happiness. Others, a tad more realistic, huddle under the wings of the rabbis, hoping to get something in return — a recommendation for promotion or accolades that will fall into the right ears. The hand the officer kisses today will be kissed tomorrow by his superiors. Find yourself a rabbi, says the officer; find yourself an officer, says the rabbi. One hand kisses the other — that’s the system.

Rabbinical courtyards — occasionally referred to as dynasties — have existed in the Ashkenazi and Sephardic ultra-orthodox communities for many years. Each such courtyard has its own followers; each such dynasty has its economic base. What has changed in the past generation, however, is the public attitude toward these rabbis, who have become celebrities with whom decision-makers come to confer. Having woven trans-global ties, these rabbis are involved in politics, business affairs, and the daily affairs of government offices. The minister of Homeland Security is prohibited from interfering in any investigation, but they surely can. Fear of the State Comptroller does not touch the hem of their garment. Nor are they bothered by public criticism. They live above the conventional rules of Hoyle. Their followers are in the right: They’re superhuman.

Every newspaper reader knows their names: The Abuhatzeira’s from [the cities of] Nahariya, Netivot and Beer Sheba, Yaakov Iffergan — better known as “The Roentgen” or “X-ray” — from Netivot, and of course super-Pinto from Ashdod — the wealthiest of them all, whose worth — according to the press — stands at $75 million. These are the big shots. Yet there are smaller ones who do not enjoy as much national notoriety, but have considerable influence nonetheless.

Brig. Gen. Bracha did well to report to his commander about rabbi’s Pinto proposal. Yet by doing so he exposed himself to serious criticism from the disciples of such rabbis. This is no easy matter for a religious person. Gen. Segalovich was right to decide that instead of letting the investigation slide — as has often been the case with other rabbis — to strike while the iron was hot. That said, it would not be unwarranted to wonder why the brigadier general went to see Pinto in the first place.

The police are part of the people of Israel, I know that. The people of Israel, or at least some of them, sanctify rabbis. Some of the people of Israel also believe in the power of blessings from rabbis or in miracles of sorts. Some even believe that a certain rabbi, [the Lubavitcher Rebbe], has not really passed away, wandering in our midst as a messiah.

This is also what senior police officers have told me: We’re part of the people of Israel. When we’re talking about the police, it appears to be too convenient an answer. Uniformed police officers would be well advised to look for the Almighty at the synagogue in their neighborhood and not in the courtyard of a tycoon-rabbi. 

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