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Several weeks ago, a group of lawyers, judges, social workers and psychologists gathered in Jerusalem for a children's rights conference. There were speakers from Israel, South Africa, Norway, Germany and Belgium. Everyone noted that Israel had ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. But the question remains: Have we implemented those rights?
Not surprisingly, there were no dayanim (religious court judges) present at the conference. My guess is few sitting dayanim have ever read the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
While the impact of divorce on children's lives is massive, and the issue of custody of minor children is often brought to the dayanim in divorce cases, children don't seem to have any rights in the religious court system. The Convention specifically states that "in all actions, the child's best interests shall be a prime consideration." The child also has a right to "express an opinion, and to have that opinion taken into account."
One of the conference speakers studied 400 cases in the Tel Aviv rabbinical courts involving custody of minor children. In none of these cases were children's voices heard. Nobody asked the child what he or she wanted. Rather, children tend to be viewed as pawns in the blackmail process which is rampant in religious divorce proceedings in Israel. Furthermore, the child's economic needs and rights are never considered. For instance:
* "Rachel" and her six children suffered from emotional abuse from "Haim." Rachel was awarded custody and the sum of NIS 4,000 per month in child support in the regional Family Court after leaving Haim. Separated for eight years, Haim refused to give Rachel a get (religious divorce) unless she waived all child support. He argued that he couldn't afford NIS 4,000 a month, although the Family Court judge who reviewed Haim's income from his well-paid job concluded that this amount was reasonable.
The dayanim urged Rachel to accept Haim's conditions for giving the get, thus freeing her to remarry. While Rachel desperately wanted a divorce, she was faced with a terrible dilemma. She barely made ends meet with the child support awarded by the civil court. How could she support her children if she agreed to release Haim from all financial obligations? Have the dayanim who urged her to accept Haim's offer considered the economic impact on the children?
* "Sara" and "Yossi" were married 10 years and have four young children. Yossi left Sara two years ago to live with another woman, with whom he has an infant. Yossi was willing to give Sara a get if she would turn over the jointly owned family apartment to him. The apartment was worth NIS 600,000.
Although Sara and the children would not have a place to live, and Yossi was unwilling to rent an alternative apartment for them, the dayanim urged Sara to accept Yossi's demands in order to obtain her freedom through the get.
Sara wanted to remarry, but knew that she and the children could be homeless if they accepted Yossi's terms.
IS IT any wonder that so many single-parent families headed by divorced or separated women live under the poverty line? Desperate women too often give in to their husband's unreasonable and illegal demands at the urging of the religious court judges.
But it's not only children's economic rights which are ignored. Children's safety is also at risk as a result of the approach of the dayanim.
The Convention states "children have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, physical or mentally." And yet:
* "Yehudit" and her two young children separated from "Shimon," an abusive husband and father, five years ago. Shimon was so abusive to his children that criminal charges were brought against him. Shimon was convicted, and after serving a short period of time in prison, he was released.
Part of his sentence included the right to visitation with his children only in the presence of a social worker. Yehudit wanted to remarry, but Shimon refused to give her a get unless she agreed to allow him unsupervised visitation with the children. The dayanim urged her to accept this condition. After all, doesn't a father have a right to be with his children without a social worker being present?
Sadly, these examples are typical of the thousands of divorce cases heard in Israeli rabbinical courts every year. Dayanim claim that it is the women, not their husbands, who are truly recalcitrant. The men are willing to release their wives from non-existent or unwanted marriages. All the women have to do is accept the husband's conditions for giving the get!
As for the rights of the children to a "standard of living that is good enough to meet their physical and mental needs" as required by the Convention, the dayanim seem to be more concerned with the husband's economic needs. Nor do the dayanim seem particularly sensitive to the need for protecting children from abusive fathers. Could it be that their yeshiva education and limited exposure to modern life has prevented them from understanding the problem of abused children and their need for protection?
Religious court judges are chosen by a Commission to Appoint Dayanim. We should be selecting only candidates who are committed to implementing the Convention of the Rights of the Child in their practices.
The writer, an international women's rights lawyer, was recently elected to a second three-year term as the Israel Bar Association representative to the 10-member Commission to Appoint Dayanim.
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