Religion ministry pushes for more rabbinical court jurisdiction in civil matters

Proponents argue that Israel – because it is a Jewish state – should grant state institutions the right to resolve disputes according to Jewish law for those who want that option.

April 14, 2017 04:01
3 minute read.
The Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv

The Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The Religious Services Ministry has drafted and disseminated legislation to government ministries and authorities which would allow state rabbinical courts to adjudicate on matters of civil law, if both sides to a dispute give their consent.

Proponents argue that Israel – because it is a Jewish state – should grant state institutions the right to resolve disputes according to Jewish law for those who want that option.

However, the legislation has been strongly criticized by pluralistic groups and politicians as expanding religious influence over the country. One organization said it would take Israel in “the direction of Iran or Saudi Arabia.”

In the Knesset’s winter session, United Torah Judaism MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev succeeded in getting a bill passed on first reading that granted the power of arbitration over civil matters to rabbinical courts, when both parties agree.

The new bill goes further, adding judicial authority over civil matters, when the parties agree. Such a step would give much greater power and independence to the religious courts than was given by the arbitration legislation.

The proposed bill would grant rabbinical courts the authority to: demand testimony from witnesses; impose property seizures; ban citizens from leaving the country; penalize for contempt of court; enforce judgments it makes; among other judicial powers.

Appeals could be made to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, and objections to rulings of the Supreme Rabbinical Court “may be validated by the High Court of Justice” of the civil system.

The legislation provides protection for groups and individuals – including women, employees and the disabled – who may be hurt by having their cases heard according to Jewish instead of civil law. It explicitly states that rabbinical court rulings shall not harm the basic rights of such individuals and groups.

“Authorizing the rabbinical courts to hear cases of civil law according to Torah law for those requesting it is an appropriate and fitting answer for this requirement, and an appropriate and fitting expression of the State of Israel, being a Jewish and democratic state,” reads the bill’s explanation.

“It is appropriate that the state provide communities... tools to resolve disputes in alternative legal methods which are accepted by their communities, especially with Torah law, Jewish law, the inheritance of the Jewish people.”

However, secularist and pluralist groups have strongly denounced the legislation.

“Widening the jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts significantly widens the control of religious mechanisms over the state,” said Mickey Gitzin, director of the Israel Be Free secularist group and a Tel Aviv City Council member for Meretz.

Gitzin pointed out that private rabbinical courts, of which there are several dozen in the country, are already able to hear matters of civil law in arbitration. Decisions made in those courts are binding and enforceable through civil district courts.

“But here we are talking about a parallel legal system, which in many cases contradicts Israeli civil law, but which will receive the same status. Rabbinical judges – religious men only – will be able to judge on civil issues, which could significantly impact the rights of citizens in Israel,” he said.

“It’s sad to see how the government of Israel, in opposition to the standpoint of the public, is bringing us closer to the direction of a halachic [Jewish religious law] state similar to the model of Iran or Saudi Arabia.”

Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie called the legislation “harmful,” and said it would only increase damage to the rights of women. The rabbinical court system, she said, is “an institution that excludes, discriminates and harms women, both in its purely male structure and through its rulings.”

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