Israel shaken by decision to indict Rabbi Pinto

The serious charges to be filed against Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto have generated a storm among the Israeli public days after the police recommended that Rabbi Yona Metzger be indicted for bribery and fraud.

al-monitor A photo of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto from Oct. 23, 2013. Photo by Yaacov Gross/Wikicommons.

Topics covered

rabbis, rabbi pinto, police, jews, israeli politics, bribery

Feb 18, 2014

Before he got into trouble with the law, Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto enjoyed an unprecedented public standing. Barely 40, he had already succeeded in amassing a fortune, as well as power and adherents in Israel and the broader Jewish community. His success had made him one of the most influential rabbis in the world.

Then, on the evening of Feb. 12, a bombshell dropped: Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced his decision to indict the rabbi on charges of bribery, obstruction of an investigation by offering inducements, illegally influencing various authorities, witness intimidation, money laundering and other offenses.

The indictment of a rabbi in Israel is far from a commonplace occurrence. Rabbis, by virtue of their position, enjoy unofficial immunity because of their spiritual standing. News of the decision to indict a rabbi of Pinto’s ilk stupefied observers, led all radio and television newscasts and the following day made the headlines of all the major newspapers.

It was a very bad week for rabbis in general. Several days earlier, Israeli police had recommended that Rabbi Yona Metzger, until recently Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, face trial as well. Metzger is suspected of receiving millions of shekels (hundreds of thousands of dollars) in bribes, money laundering, fraud and other offenses. If found guilty, he could face a lengthy prison term.

Despite Israel being a secular state, many Israelis follow rabbis and attribute to them extraordinary spiritual qualities. When they seek solace, many in Israel turn to rabbis and kabbalists. During my years as a journalist, I closely followed this phenomenon of adulation.

In early 1999, I was sent by Haaretz to cover the festive opening of the Intel plant in the town of Kiryat Gat. The advent of a high-tech enterprise in Israel’s south was perceived by many, especially residents of the south, as the possible harbinger of a modern era for the Negev region.

Thousands of visitors from around the country flocked to the state-of-the-art facility to take part in the event, designed to promote Israel’s unique status in the world of advanced technology. Government ministers, members of the Knesset, businessmen, financiers, professors, mayors and many others crowded into crammed production halls in their enthusiasm for the wonders of this advanced technology.

With noon approaching, at the height of the festivities people started leaving for the annual public celebration of Rabbi Yaakov Ifergan in the nearby town of Netivot. Ifergan’s reputation as someone who can see through and beyond the temporal body had earned him the nickname “the X-Ray” among thousands of his followers. A buzz could be felt in the parking lots as hundreds of the senior and well-known guests at Intel made their way to Netivot, a 30-minute car ride away. I joined them.

The festivities began, and thousands of acolytes danced around the rabbi, kissing his hand, placing hands on his shoulders, hugging him and whispering in his ear. At a certain point, as the party moved into the night, thousands of candles were placed next to the rabbi, and he hurled them, one by one, into a large bonfire burning in front of him. His adherents went into an ecstatic fit. I saw among them two cabinet ministers and a number of lawmakers, well-known businessmen, singers and actors. Years later, Nohi Dankner, the owner of the country’s largest business empire, would be the VIP who got to sit next to the “X-Ray.”

In recent years, Rabbi Pinto has overtaken Ifergan, attracting prominent believers and devotees, among them senior figures in the defense establishment, politicians of all ranks, business tycoons and people affiliated with the criminal world.

There is no precedent for possibly two indictments against senior rabbis who appear to have fallen to such depths. Until his retirement, Rabbi Metzger had been considered one of the country’s 10 most important people and was an honorary member of the state’s leadership.

Pinto, until the decision to indict him, had been an admired figure to whom tens of thousands flocked in the southern town of Ashdod, as well as in New York, to receive his blessing. Among his many followers, it now appears, was a man only a few knew as one of the most senior investigators in the Israeli police force.

According to the allegations, the rabbi one day turned to one of his followers, the police officer, and asked him to obtain confidential information for him regarding an investigation into the dealings of a non-profit organization in which the rabbi was active. The rabbi did not stop there, but promised to return the favor by paying the officer $200,000.

Haaretz published that the officer, Ephraim Bracha, let his bosses in on the secret [first among them, Yoav Segalovich, head of the police investigations and intelligence branch]. At the moment of truth, the officer, when he had to choose between his faith and his job as a public servant, abandoned his rabbi. When the bribe was handed over in an envelope, the deed was captured on camera, and the alleged evidence is now at the center of the soon-to-be-filed charges against the rabbi.

As if this were not enough, the rabbi also attempted to avoid prosecution. It turns out that among his followers was another senior police officer, Menashe Arbiv, who heads the investigating units, a position considered equivalent to the director of the FBI in the United States. Pinto approached Attorney General Weinstein with the following dubious proposition: He would expose benefits that, according to his claim [in an affidavit by Ben Sion Suki, Rabbi Pinto's right-hand man], he allegedly gave Arbiv over the years, and in return, all charges against him would be dismissed.

In the contest over whom to indict, it seemed that the government preferred the scalp of a senior civil servant to that of a rabbi. The reported deal created a storm among the public and law enforcement circles. While the attorney general was considering the rabbi’s proposition, Arbiv announced on Feb. 9 that he would be retiring from the police force. His move is widely seen as intended to torpedo the state’s deal with the rabbi, and his retirement announcement paved the way for Weinstein’s decision to indict Pinto.

At Pinto’s next public celebration, we are not likely to see the usual crowd of influentials that attended it in past years. Few would want to be seen or to have their picture taken alongside a rabbi and kabbalist expected to stand trial for bribery.

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