Police said Wednesday that a preliminary investigation into the Chief Rabbinate of Haifa uncovered systematic discrimination against Israeli couples linked to a rival rabbinical body.

Officers from the Lahav 433 fraud squad said dozens of couples who requested to be married by a rabbi from the Tzohar religious organization were regularly turned down for marriage licenses by the governing Orthodox body.

Illustrative photo of a couple having a wedding picture taken at the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Two officials in the Ministry for Religious Services were questioned under caution by police in recent weeks over suspected fraud, breach of trust and falsifying documents.

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Last week the ministry suspended both employees, one of them reportedly a senior official, for falsifying the personal details of couples applying for marriage licenses.

Police findings were handed over to the State Attorney’s Office, which will decide in the coming weeks if criminal investigation is warranted.

Tzohar — a rabbinical organization that seeks to bridge the gaps between Israel’s religious and secular Jews — last month asked police to open an investigation in the wake of a previous Channel 2 report that the Haifa Rabbinate denied licences to more than 100 local couples who had registered with it.

The excuses included allegations that the couples involved had a non-Jewish member, that they had been married previously, or that they were the offspring of unmarried parents. According to Channel 2, the Haifa Rabbinate later admitted that the reasons given for the denials were unsubstantiated.

In Israel, the only legal route for Jews to marry is through the State Rabbinate. While the Tzohar rabbis perform the actual ceremony, as well as pre-wedding counseling, the couples must still complete official registration through their local rabbinate. Thousands of Israeli couples — many secular — choose to marry with Tzohar, citing a more compassionate and understanding approach to the marriage process as compared to the more bureaucratic process associated with the central rabbinical offices.

A statement issued from Tzohar on Wednesday called the police finding “deeply distressing,” and urged authorities to pursue criminal against the

“Effectively investigating criminal action is critical for our national desire to rid out corruption and restore the public’s faith in those responsible for religious services in our country,” the organization said. “It is deeply distressing that the rogue actions of a small group can so negatively tarnish the Jewish spirit in ways that have caused irreparable damage to the people of Israel.”

The police investigation comes weeks after Ethiopian Israelis in the central city of Petah Tikva alleged they are regularly denied marriage licenses by the city’s rabbinate, due to questions of their Jewishness.

Under the auspices of the city’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Binyamin Atias, members of the city’s 10,000-strong Ethiopian community say the local rabbinical authority routinely demand they submit paperwork proving their conversion, produce assurances from a rabbi they are practicing Orthodox Jews, and investigate the couple’s backgrounds before ultimately turning them away.

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