Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was placed under house arrest Thursday after he was questioned by the police over an ongoing bribery, fraud and money-laundering investigation. The police allege that Metzger pocketed hundreds of thousands of shekels meant for several charities. Three other suspects were arrested as well.
Police officers raided Metzger's home and office on Thursday afternoon following a covert investigation by the National Fraud Unit. The rabbi was detained and questioned for over 10 hours, after which he was arraigned and remanded to 15 days of house arrest.
Metzger was also barred from entering his office or leaving the country and prohibited from contacting the other suspects in the case.
The covert investigation against Metzger, which spanned several months, had to be authorized by Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein and State Prosecutor Moshe Lador, as the chief rabbi of Israel enjoys the same legal immunity as a Supreme Court judge.
Investigators also detained Metzger's driver, Haim Nissan Eisenshtat, on suspicion of money-laundering, fraud, breach of trust and receiving illicit funds. Rabbi Simcha Karkovsky, who heads the Beit Hatavshil charity in Bnei Brak in central Israel, and Nissan Ben-Zion Zioni, who heads a rabbinical school in Tel Aviv, were also arrested on suspicion of bribery and fraud.
The Rishon Lezion Magistrates' Court placed all three under house arrest as well, remanding Eisenshtat for eight days and Karkovsky and Zioni for six days each.
The raid on the chief rabbi's home and office yielded documents, computer files and other materials the police believe will directly implicate Metzger and the three other suspects.
Metzger's attorneys, David Livai and Elad Rut, issued a statement saying, "The chief rabbi was summoned for police questioning, he complied and was questioned for several hours. Rabbi Metzger cooperated with the investigators in full and he denies all the allegations."
Deputy Magistrates' Court President, Judge Yaron Levy, who presided over the arraignments, noted the evidence indicated that "considerable amounts of money had changed hands on several occasions and across a lengthy period of time ... Each of the suspects allegedly played a role, but it seems Eisenshtat was the key player."
The judge noted that Karkovsky and Zioni's part in the scheme "seems to be secondary."
The Ometz (Citizens for Good Governance and Social Justice) group appealed to Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) on Thursday, asking him to order Metzger's immediate suspension. The Movement for Quality Government in Israel demanded that Metzger suspend himself.
Metzger, who was named Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel in 2003 at the age of 49, making him the youngest chief rabbi ever appointed, has come under suspicion before: In 2005 he was questioned for allegedly receiving illicit benefits amounting to tens of thousands of shekels from the David Citadel Hotel, one of the luxury hotels in Jerusalem, in the form of free accommodations for himself and his extended family.
The police recommended indicting the rabbi, but Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz decided to close the case, citing insufficient evidence. In his brief on the case, however, Mazuz stated that Metzger was "unsuited for public office."