Haredi MKs advance legislation to expand rabbinical courts' jurisdiction

Gafni argues that the bill is a matter of multiculturalism and designed to allow religious Jews the right to chose their legal forum.

February 14, 2018 18:31
3 minute read.
Yaakov Litzman

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party sits with other ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government during a Knesset session, November 23. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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United Torah Judaism MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev further advanced legislation in the Knesset on Wednesday that would expand the jurisdiction of the state rabbinical courts and allow them to arbitrate in matters of civil law.

Gafni argues that the bill is a matter of multiculturalism and designed to allow religious Jews the right to choose the legal forum that is most commensurate with their values and beliefs.

Opponents of the bill argue, however, that this right is already guaranteed through non-state rabbinical courts which are empowered to arbitrate matters of civil law.

Some coalition MKs and several opposition MKs have voiced concerns that such legislation would endanger women’s and employees’ rights due to the nature of Jewish law and pressure that might be brought to bear on individuals reluctant to agree to rabbinical court arbitration.

The bill requires that both sides to a civil dispute consent to it being heard in a rabbinical court, and stipulates several exclusions to what the rabbinical courts can rule on, but opponents are still wary that these exclusions are not specific enough to allay their fears.

The legal adviser to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee highlighted in particular the danger of allowing the rabbinical courts to arbitrate in disputes between employers and workers, commenting on the draft bill that it would be hard for an employee to resist the request of his employer to go to the rabbinical courts instead of the civil courts.

Gafni said during the committee hearing on Wednesday that he would “concede on everything. I only want the principle that if two adults want to have an issue of property law heard in accordance with Torah law in the rabbinical courts of the state, then we will enable this.”

He said that to block this law would be a stain on the liberalism of secular MKs, while Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich called the opponents of the law “hypocritical” and said that he does not understand “this secular coercion which prevents people from being judged in accordance with their faith.”

Smotrich also accused the bill’s opponents of “extremist paternalism,” and of treating Israeli citizens “like idiots.”

Gafni and Maklev have stated that they will agree to exclude all matters of personal status and employment disputes from the bill, but the draft bill is yet to reflect that, and MKs opposing the law, including Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria, remain skeptical of the current draft.

“The Haredi MKs are trying to dramatically increase the authority of the rabbinical courts,” Azaria said, and would open the way for other groups to demand that their courts be afforded similar rights.

“This law would harm women, immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law, LGBTs, and people who enter this process without knowing the principles,” she said.

Azaria also pointed out that Jewish law has a huge repository of legal opinions, codices and commentaries, and that this means that interpretation is down to individual rabbinical judges and their particular worldview.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer, whose party vehemently opposes the legislation, expressed concern that employees could be forced into agreeing to rabbinical court arbitration in their employment contracts, adding that Muslim citizens could demand similar authority for Shari’a courts, if the legislation were to be approved.

Yisrael Beytenu faction chairman MK Robert Ilatov issued a sharply worded letter to Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), who chairs a committee of coalition MKs on issues regarding religion and state, protesting the advance of legislation without coalition agreement on the issue.

Officials in Yisrael Beytenu allege that the Haredi parties have an agreement whereby the Joint List will support, or at least not oppose, the “rabbinical courts bill,” while UTJ and Shas will oppose the “muezzin bill” which seeks to limit the volume of the call to prayer by mosques over loudspeakers.

Agreement on the legislation was not reached during the committee hearing, especially due to the opposition of coalition MKs Azaria and Forer, and it appears that the Haredi MKs will face significant difficulties in advancing the bill through committee to its first reading in the Knesset plenum.

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