The first major step in what the government vows will be a major crackdown on polygamy among the Beduin has touched off an angry response from that community’s leaders, who distrust the motives behind the campaign.
Polygamy has been illegal in Israel since 1977, but in practice, authorities have looked the other way. However, in January, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, citing polygamy’s deleterious effect on Beduin women and children, spearheaded a cabinet plan to combat the phenomenon, including the prosecution of offenders.
Last month, the first such indictment was issued in the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court, sending shock waves through the Beduin community, where the percentage of men marrying more than one wife is estimated by women’s-rights groups to be around 40%.
Atiyeh al-Asam, head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Beduin Villages in the Negev, said on Wednesday: “Ayelet Shaked is not concerned about Beduin women and children. If she was really concerned about their well-being, she wouldn’t support the demolition of hundreds of homes” in unrecognized villages, where it is impossible to get permits to build legally.
The real reason Shaked is cracking down on polygamy is to curb Beduin population growth, Asam said. “She’s afraid of the demographic threat of rising Arab population,” he said.
“We as a Beduin community have a right to have children,” Asam said. “No one can enforce on us how many children we have. Israel is interfering in our culture and internal traditions. Police interference is out of place. It is interfering in our religious and Islamic morals.”
To the wives superseded by their husband’s bigamy, the taking of another wife can cause them to “come apart psychologically,” said Insaf Abu Shareb, head of the Beersheba-based NGO Itach-Maaki, which aids victims.
“Women have to take medications and receive psychiatric follow-up for depression,” she said. “Women describe it as a knife in the heart, a wound that bleeds forever. Some reported suicide attempts.”
“All the responsibility for the children is on their shoulders – the woman is made responsible alone for raising and supporting the children,” Abu Shareb said.
“The children are also influenced by abandonment by the father and his neglect of them. This is a traumatic event the women and children can’t overcome. Women report shortages of basic food and of money for medications.”
But the practice is still widely accepted. Amal Abu Thoum, director of the Beduin Women’s Society in Segev Shalom township, stressed that polygamy is allowed under Islamic religious law, provided the man treats his wives equally.
“The [new] government policy is unjust and very racist,” Abu Thoum said. “This war is against us as humans. They want to fight natural population growth in Beduin society. I don’t feel threatened by another woman. What threatens me is demolishing homes, no job opportunities and not having educational facilities for our sons. The problem isn’t polygamy, it’s racist treatment.”
Shaked was traveling abroad and could not be reached for comment. But the Justice Ministry Spokesman’s Office quoted her as saying in the past: “The phenomenon of polygamy harms first of all the Beduin women and contravenes the values and foundations of the state as a democratic state.”
Shaked’s plan cited “a high rate of child neglect, violence against women, poverty and unsound relationships in the family” due to polygamy.
The indictment charged a 36-year-old man with taking a second wife in an arranged marriage.
Meital Olek-Amouyal, spokeswoman for the Justice Ministry’s Southern District, said the police had opened additional investigations of suspected polygamy violations, but she did not know whether indictments would be issued in those cases as well. Only new cases – those opened after the cabinet decision – would be subject to prosecution, she said.
“The trend is to investigate and to indict if there is enough evidence,” Olek-Amouyal said.
“Action is being taken on polygamy not only on the criminal level but also in the civilian and educational realms. It is an overall war against this phenomenon and an effort to change things.”
The cabinet decision specified that to combat polygamy, Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz should endeavor to create more employment opportunities for Beduin women, Education Minister Naftali Bennett should incorporate education against polygamy in the school system, and Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman should work on providing services to polygamous families.
In addition, a team including officials, experts and community activists was set up to formulate action plans for dealing with polygamy.
One of the team’s members is NGO director Abu Shareb. “I am very suspicious of Shaked’s intentions, but that won’t prevent me from acting,” she said.
“I want to make sure that what is done is for the benefit of the women. I think the phenomenon of polygamy needs to be addressed through an overall civil plan including all institutions and service providers. Decades of criminal neglect cannot be remedied by legal enforcement alone.”