Women added to rabbinical judge selection c'tee

Bill to add women to committee that appoints judges to religious courts passes readings; Gal-On: New bill fixes twisted reality.

June 11, 2013 18:02
4 minute read.
Israeli Supreme Court 311

Supreme Court 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A bill to reserve four spots on the committee that appoints rabbinical judges for women was passed into law in the early hours of Tuesday morning, but not before haredi MKs repeatedly stalled the legislative process due to their vehement opposition to the terms of measure.

Every single MK of the haredi parties, numbering 19 in total, filed procedural reservations to the bill, with several of those members using the full 30 minutes of debate time allocated for every reservation to stall the passage of the law. The bill finally passed its second and third readings (final) at 4 a.m.

In addition to the four spots it reserves for women, the law will also expand the panel from 10 to 11 members, with the extra member being a qualified female rabbinical courts advocate.

The law means that at least one of government delegates to the panel, one of the Knesset delegates and one of the Israel Bar Association delegates will be a woman. The rabbinical courts advocate will be the fourth female member.

MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) – one of the architects of the law, along with Bayit Yehudi’s Shuli Muallem and Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On – said that she had fulfilled one of her promises upon being elected to the Knesset with the passage of the law.

“Four women on the committee for appointing rabbinical judges is the beginning [of a process] to rectify the discrimination against women that exists today in the rabbinical courts system,” Lavie said after the law was passed.

“The mixed variety of committee members will lead to the appointment of more moderate and attentive rabbinical judges, who are more involved in the Israeli society of 2013,” the Yesh Atid MK said.

Gal-On said that the law corrected the “skewed reality in which only men make decisions on issues that relate principally on the lives of women.”

Women’s rights activists see the committee as a crucial forum to advance women’s divorce rights since they believe that the appointment of more moderate rabbinical judges will lead to greater protection for women from extortion in divorce proceedings, which forms a large part of the work of the rabbinical courts system.

“The rabbinical courts are controlled today by reactionary rabbis, all of whom are men, with a proven record of discrimination against women, the extortion of women whose husbands refuse to grant a bill of divorce and a disregard for property law,” Gal-On added.

The haredi parties opposed the initiative fearing that liberal-minded judges will employ a more tempered interpretation of Jewish law in their rulings, especially in regards to matters of marriage and divorce.

The Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women welcomed the passage of the law, calling it a historic moment.

“The identity of the elected rabbinical judges influences the spirit of rulings on marriage and divorce, as well as other very sensitive issues,” Rackman Center director Prof. Ruth Halperin said.

“There is, therefore, great importance in the fact that women will take part in the appointments process, especially since the judges themselves are still only male,” she added.

Susan Weiss, director of the Center for Women’s Justice, also welcomed the new law. She pointed out that following the failure of the Israel Bar Association to re-elect to its slot on the committee a woman, her organization, along with several other women’s rights groups, filed a petition with the High Court of Justice 18 months ago demanding that at least four women be included on the committee.

“Because this committee, through its appointment of rabbinic judges, holds the fate of women of Israel in its hands, symbolic representation, and certainly the lack of representation, is not acceptable. The amendment indicates that the legislature understands that public commissions such as these must include proportional female representation,” said Weiss.

For the past 18 months there have been no women at all on the committee, although that changed two weeks ago after internal Knesset elections to the committee saw Bayit Yehudi MK Shuli Muallem join Justice Minister Tzipi Livni on the panel.

With the passage of the law last night, the female rabbinical courts advocate will now be added to the committee, so that there will be a total of three female members of the committee.

The guarantee of four spots for women will only take effect with the election of a new Knesset and the subsequent governmental and Knesset appointments to the body.

Because of the absence of women from the committee, the Center for Women’s Justice and the Emunah women’s rights group submitted a High Court petition at the end of 2011 which argued that the lack of female representation on the committee violated gender equality law. The petition was accepted by the court, which froze the rabbinical judge appointments process – a freeze which has remained in place since.

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