The government agreed to establish a coalition working group to discuss how to reform divorce proceedings on Sunday.
This agreement follows a deliberation on a controversial bill proposed by Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, which was opposed by Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan as well as the chief rabbinate.
The bill is designed to end a phenomenon, known as the race to the authorities, in which quarreling spouses turn too quickly, to either the rabbinical courts or the family courts, to open a divorce file instead of attempting to reconcile.
It is widely perceived that rabbinical courts favor men while the family courts favor women, when ruling on issues of child custody and division of assets in divorce proceedings, which both these legal authorities are legally empowered to do.
The legal system where the divorce is first filed is the only one able to rule on these ancillary terms of the divorce, thereby creating the “race” between partners anxious to have the file heard in the legal authority likely to be most sympathetic to their individual claims.
Lavie’s bill was brought up for discussion in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday, despite the fact that Bayit Yehudi had threatened to veto it last week.
During the debate, Bayit Yehudi representatives, MKs Uri Ariel and Uri Orbach, reportedly requested a short break to hold an internal discussion.
Upon their return, the committee agreed to establish a working group, comprised of representatives of all four coalition parties, to try and reach a compromise agreement on the issue.
Orbach had previously proposed a similar legislation to Lavie’s bill, whereas Ariel belongs to the more conservative wing of the Bayit Yehudi Knesset faction and, alongside Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, criticized what he called “a trend of anti-religious legislation that is eroding the status quo [on religion and state].”
The opposition to the bill, coming from elements within Bayit Yehudi, specifically relates to a clause in the legislation that stipulates that if the couple cannot agree on which authority to open their divorce file in the case will be handled, by default, by the family courts.
Ben-Dahan argued last Tuesday that the clause would curtail the authority of the rabbinical courts and that he would therefore oppose such a measure.
It was in fact Ariel who voiced his opposition to the bill in its current form during the committee meeting on Sunday, and it was he who suggested the establishment of the working group as a way of trying to resolve the intra-coalition dispute.
The Construction and Housing minister opposes the legislation as it goes against the opinion of the chief rabbis and, he says, damages the standing of the rabbinical courts and the chief rabbinate.
The chief rabbis will have an opportunity to present their opinions and recommendations to the new governmental panel when it convenes.
The working group will have 45 days to discuss the issue and attempt to reach a compromise that satisfies the coalition partners.
Lavie said in response to the establishment of the working group that she was pleased “Bayit Yehudi also understands the importance of the issue” and that she believed it would be possible to reach an agreement on the bill.
“This absurd situation, in which whoever draws [the divorce weapon] first wins, has no parallel anywhere in the world, it exacerbates the conflict [between spouses], wastes public money and, most importantly, leaves children scarred by parent’s waging a bitter battle between themselves,” Lavie said, and argued that her bill would reduce the number of divorces as well as ease the divorce process itself.
On Thursday, Chief Rabbi Yosef fired off a letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, strongly criticizing the bill and, asking him to prevent the Ministerial Committee from voting on it.
“This bill threatens to empty the authority of the Rabbinical Courts and to create severe problems within Jewish law, and to seriously damage marriage and divorce in Israel,” wrote the chief rabbi to Netanyahu.
Yosef also argued that the phenomenon was becoming less common, although this perspective is not shared by organizations working in the field of divorce rights.