Four is better than one – or none

By SHARON SHENHAV
June 16, 2013 21:58

Congratulations to the Knesset, and especially to new MKs from Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi, for passing legislation which requires that at least four women be members of the Commission to Appoint Dayanim.

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Tzipi Livni at the Old City, Jerusalem.

Tzipi Livni in Jerusalem 370. (photo credit: Courtesy SODAVIDEO/The Tzipi Livni Party)

Congratulations to the Knesset, and especially to new MKs from Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi, for passing legislation which requires that at least four women be members of the Commission to Appoint Dayanim.

According to this law, the Knesset, the Israel Bar Association and the government must elect or appoint at least one woman to the commission.

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In addition, an 11th member has been added to the former 10-member commission, reserved for a female rabbinic pleader (toenet rabbanit).

This legislation has been long overdue, but was bitterly opposed by the haredi political parties. However, the new winds blowing in the government as a result of the recent elections have enabled the voices of women to be heard in the selection of those rabbis who have the exclusive power to decide divorce cases in Israel.

Women’s organizations have been lobbying for equality of representation of women on the government body that chooses dayanim (rabbinic court judges) for many years. ICAR, a coalition of 27 organizations committed to freeing agunot (“chained” women, referring to women whose husbands refuse to give them a bill of divorce and who are thus not free to remarry), has drafted this kind of legislation and lobbied for its passage without success.

The new Knesset, which has the largest number of female MKs in history, has begun to flex its muscles.

Orthodox women MKs like Dr. Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) and Shuli Muallem (Bayit Yehudi) have led the efforts and succeeded in gaining support for this revolutionary legislation. They are to be lauded for their commitment to the issue of women’s rights, their willingness to work with women’s organizations and their success in gaining support of their Knesset colleagues.

In December 2002, as a result of lobbying by ICAR, I was elected by the Israel Bar Association to become one of their two representatives on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim.

As the only woman on the commission from 2003 to 2009, I was witness to haredi domination of the commission and the challenges faced by one woman versus nine male commission members.

Thanks to the support of ICAR and its member organizations, at commission meetings I was able to speak on behalf of Israeli women and to urge my colleagues to support the appointment of dayanim who were sensitive to the discrimination against women in the religious divorce process and the operation of the rabbinical courts.

In many instances I was able to convince my colleagues on the commission to appoint the most qualified and suitable candidates, but not always. For the most part, it was a lonely as well as frustrating experience.

During a brief period when Tzipi Livni was justice minister, we were able to join forces on bringing women’s issues to the debate. It was a real pleasure to work with this consummate female professional who studied the materials, was sensitive to women’s concerns and projected a knowledgeable as well as ministerial approach.

Working closely with women’s organizations, I had encouraged them to provide the commission with evaluations of candidates based on the experience of women seeking divorces and appearing before some of these candidates.

During Livni’s one-year tenure as justice minister she would request that I provide the commission with the women’s evaluation of candidates during discussions of their qualifications.

Thus women’s concerns became part of the file on each candidate and were discussed in determining whether or not a particular candidate should be appointed to be a dayan.

Sadly, in 2011 the Israel Bar Association chose not to elect a woman to the commission, thus leaving the commission an all-male body.

Women’s organizations petitioned the Supreme Court to require that women be represented on this commission and an injunction was issued, denying the commission the right to meet and appoint dayanim so long as no women were serving on it.

While this matter is still pending before the court, the recent elections have brought new faces and new ideas on women’s issues to the Knesset and the government. As justice minister once again, Livni will be chairing the commission. The Knesset, in a historical precedent, elected a female MK, Shuli Muallem, as one of its representatives to the commission a few weeks ago. Now the Knesset has gone much further by passing the legislation which requires that at least four of the 11 members of the commission will be women.

While those women who will be serving on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim may find themselves a bit frustrated by the deliberations of the commission, as I was several years ago, at least they won’t be so lonely! Four is definitely better than one!

The author, a Jerusalem-based women’s rights lawyer, is the director of the International Jewish Women’s Rights Project of the International Council of Jewish Women and was the only woman on the Commission to Appoint Dayanim from 2003 to 2009.


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