The rights of women in all matters pertaining to marriage and divorce will be threatened if, as expected, authority over the rabbinical courts network is transferred on Sunday from the Justice Ministry to the Ministry of Religious Services, the women’s rights group Emunah said Thursday.
In light of this concern, Emunah submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice on Thursday calling on the court to halt the transfer of power, describing it as an attempt to politicize the rabbinical courts system.
The transfer of powers was agreed upon in the coalition deal between Likud and Shas, but the implementation of the move also includes a clause that would further damage the influence of liberally inclined women’s rights groups over the rabbinical courts.
Legislation passed in 2013 by the last government, proposed and advanced by former Bayit Yehudi MK Shuli Muallem and current Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, guaranteed that four women would be present on the 11-member rabbinical judges appointments committee, a key forum for influencing the rabbinical courts.
The cabinet order on Sunday includes a clause that would transfer the authority to appoint one of those positions – guaranteed to be a female rabbinical court advocate – from the minister of justice, Bayit Yehudi member Ayelet Shaked, to Shas Minister of Religious Services David Azoulai.
Lavie spoke out harshly against this proposed step on Thursday in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post, and criticized Bayit Yehudi in particular for giving in to haredi demands on the issue.
The rabbinical courts have exclusive jurisdiction over Jewish marriage and divorce, and therefore have heavy influence over Jewish citizens, regardless of whether they are religious or not.
Divorce matters are a huge part of the rabbinical courts’ workload, and women’s rights groups frequently claim that rabbinical judges fail to protect women from extortion during divorce proceedings.
In Emunah’s petition, the group argues that since the rabbinical courts network is a judicial framework, it must remain within the Ministry of Justice to preserve the proper professional standards required of a judicial body. Emunah called on the High Court to issue an injunction against the transfer.
The courts were previously under the authority of the Ministry of Religious Services, but were transferred to the Justice Ministry in 2003 when the former ministry was dismantled.
Emunah chairwoman Liora Minke told the Post that the attempt to transfer authority over the rabbinical courts to the Ministry of Religious Services “stems from political considerations with no professional basis at all.”
She said that significant advances have been made in the last 12 years in which the rabbinical courts were under the authority of the Justice Ministry, in terms of the professionalism of the administration and the training of rabbinical judges, achievements which she said could be undone by the proposed transfer of authority.
Emunah’s petition also calls for the High Court to issue an injunction against transferring the authority for appointing the female rabbinical advocate to the Committee for Appointing Rabbinical Judges.
Minke said that both measures are designed to make the rabbinical courts and the rabbinical judges themselves dependent on political parties, and the haredi parties in particular, something which she said is undesirable for a judicial body.
She added that Shas’s specific demands indicated the party’s desire to influence the appointment of rabbinical judges and the broader rabbinical courts administration, including the appointment of positions within the system.
Lavie told the Post that Bayit Yehudi had abandoned the cause of liberalizing the state’s interaction with religious services and concerns, and said the party could halt the transfer of power expected to be enacted on Sunday if it so wishes.
“Bayit Yehudi has conceded on every important issue relating to influence over religious life, and everything that was achieved during the last Knesset on these issues is now at risk,” the MK said, adding that it is “very painful” to watch such reversals.
Lavie described many of the serving rabbinical judges as “disconnected from Israeli society” and said that many of them have no academic credentials and some “are not even Zionists.”
“How can such rabbinical judges act appropriately on all issues pertaining to divorce, women’s rights, conversion and other sensitive issues that come before the rabbinical courts?” she asked.
Dr. Rachel Levmore, the current rabbinical courts advocate on the Committee for Appointing Rabbinical Judges, also criticized the proposed transfer of power, saying that the interest of the Ministry of Justice is to ensure that justice in all fields is served and that for this reason the authorities in question should remain with that ministry.
“I am calling on Bayit Yehudi to vote in accordance with what its constituents would want, which includes religious Zionists as well traditional Israelis and secular Israelis, and to vote against any changes in the Law for Rabbinical Judges of 1955,” she said.
“To change the law in the manner proposed may be legal, but goes against the interests of the general populace and its right to be heard and influence the legislative process.”
A senior official in Bayit Yehudi said that the party is not in favor of either transfers of power, but said that even though the granting of authority over the appointment of the female rabbinical courts advocate was seemingly not part of any coalition agreement, Bayit Yehudi could not separate out the different clauses of the proposed government order expected to come before the cabinet on Sunday and would not vote against it.
Deputy Minister of Defense Eli Ben-Dahan, who formerly served as deputy minister of Religious Services and the director of the Rabbinical Courts Administration, said that he had previously fought to transfer the rabbinical courts to the authority of the Justice Ministry as director, and said that he was saddened by Sunday’s impending transfer back to the Religious Services Ministry.
Like Minke, Ben-Dahan voiced concern that the transfer would be a step backwards for the rabbinical courts in many aspects.
“This is a cynical political process which has reached new heights in Israeli politics,” commented Attorney Aviad Hacohen, the dean of the Shaarei Mishpat college and legal counsel for Emunah.
“Regretfully, the Rabbinical Courts, an integral part of the judicial system, dominates the lives of millions of Israeli citizens, deals with ‘life and death’ matters and determines the fate of parents and children, ‘chained women’ and women who are denied a divorce,” he continued.
Hacohen added that the expected transfer of authorities “is not motivated by matters of principle but coalition considerations alone, the damage from which Israeli society will suffer for many years to come.
A spokesman for the Minister of Religious Services David Azoulai declined to comment on the issue.