Deputy Minister for Religious Services and Bayit Yehudi MK Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan said on Tuesday he would block a bill on reforming the process of filing for divorce proposed by Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, but would instead present his own legislation on the matter.
Lavie’s bill is yet another in a series of proposed laws regarding matters of religion and state that has generated opposition from Ben-Dahan and Bayit Yehudi, who insist that such issues be coordinated with them before being brought to the government for approval.
At present, someone seeking divorce may approach either the rabbinical courts system or the family courts to rule on issues of child custody, child support payments, and division of assets.
Whichever authority receives the first application for the divorce is the only one which by law is able to rule on such matters. Critically, it is widely perceived that the rabbinical courts favor men and that family courts favor women.
This situation has led to a phenomenon called the “race to the authorities” in which the two partners will, instead of seeking to address the problems in the marriage, turn as quickly as possible to the legal authority of their choice so as to obtain the best possible terms in the divorce in the settlement.
According to Lavie’s bill, a divorce file could be opened only with the explicit agreement of both partners, meaning that agreement is needed on which authority to turn to for the divorce.
If agreement cannot be reached, then the case will be decided in the family court.
During a committee hearing on the issue in the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women, Lavie said that the current situation was “absurd” and prevents couples from reconciling and resolving their differences amicably.
“This law will mean that there will not be a ‘race to acquire authority,’” she said.
But Ben-Dahan argued that the law was one-sided and was designed to limit the authority of the rabbinical courts system.
The deputy minister said that couples seeking divorce do not agree on anything, and that the default authority when there is no agreement – the family courts, according to the proposed legislation – would always be the one in which the divorce cases would be decided.
“You wouldn’t agree that it would only be possible to hear [divorce cases] in the wonderful family courts only with the agreement of both sides,” Ben-Dahan said to the proponents of the bill, “so you [clearly] want to limit the authority [of the rabbinical courts].”
As an alternative to the bill, Ben-Dahan has proposed a bill that would stipulate that a couple must conduct a conflict resolution process with qualified professionals such as social workers under the auspices of the state before a petition for divorce could be made.
The proposal is based on the recommendations of the Shinhav government committee back in 2005.
The deputy minister said that he would block Lavie’s bill, in accordance with the coalition agreement which stipulates that all parties in the government may veto legislation on matters of religion and state.
“Issues of religion and state are on my narrow shoulders.
If you want to advance [legislation], the path is through me,” he said. “There is a coalition agreement and we have the right to veto legislation that is not coordinated [with Bayit Yehudi], and I’m the person you need to coordinate with.”
He also criticized Lavie’s bill and other recent bills, such as one proposed by MK Elazar Stern on abolishing twin Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief municipal rabbi positions, as “populist legislation.”
“It looks like a reality TV show by the name of ‘The Race to a Preliminary Reading,’” said Ben-Dahan, in reference to the first stage of legislation once a bill reaches the Knesset.
Lavie said in response that Ben-Dahan was blocking progress on such matters.
“It’s a shame that we didn’t see Rabbi Ben-Dahan in Bayit Yehudi’s election broadcasts, and saw only Bennett, Orbach and Shaked, who promised to work toward Judaism for Israelis,” noted Lavie acerbically.
“In reality, they put all the issues of religion and state in the hands of Rabbi Ben-Dahan, who is blocking every effort to act on the issue,” she continued.
Criticism for the deputy minister came from less political quarters as well.
Rabbi Seth Farber of the ITIM religious services advisory organization and lobbying group said that the deputy minister was trying to protect the rabbinical courts.
“Rabbi Ben-Dahan is trying to protect the power of the rabbinical courts, but in this particular case giving the rabbinical courts more power undermines their moral authority and their capacity to be effective as religious functionaries for the Israeli Jewish population.”
Farber argued that the bill proposed by Ben-Dahan would not prevent the race to the authorities but merely delay it, and said it was anyway a “patronizing and paternalistic” idea.
Professor Ruth Halperin- Kaddari, a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University who heads the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, likewise noted that Ben-Dahan’s proposal, based on the Shinhav committee recommendations, would not deal with the problem of the race to the authorities itself and would simply delay it.
Halperin-Kaddari, who was present at Tuesday’s committee hearing, added that the principle of having a conflict resolution process for couples seeking divorce was, however, a positive and desirable step and should be pursued, but that this measure would not redress the problems Lavie’s bill sought to deal with.