More disappearing women

A male-only selection process for rabbinical court judges bodes badly for Israeli women of all stripes.

By SHARON SHENHAV
November 19, 2011 22:16
IN ISRAEL, where civil family law ‘is’ Jewish law,

Jerusalem Rabbanut 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

On Tuesday, the Israel Bar Association will select two representatives to the Commission to Appoint Dayanim.

While there has been a great deal of press coverage lately about the selection of the members of the commission which appoints civil court judges, including in-depth discussion of the various political factions vying for control of the selection process, little attention has been paid to the appointment of dayanim, or rabbinical court judges.

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The public has been inundated with public discussion regarding the Knesset’s attempt to limit the Bar Association’s ability to appoint its representatives to these commissions. Legislation has been proposed that would make the chairman of the Bar Association automatically one of the two representatives to the commissions that appoint civil as well as religious court judges. The association’s current chairman, as has been the case since the it was created over 50 years ago, is a man.

To date, the Bar Association has never elected a woman to lead it.

Since the statutory commission selecting civil court judges includes the president of the Supreme Court as well as one other Supreme Court justice, there have been several women on this commission. Currently one of the Bar Association representatives is also a woman, so there are now two women on this 10-member commission. In recent years, over half of their judicial appointments have included women.

THE COMMISSION to Appoint Dayanim, however, presents a much different picture.

Members of this commission include the two chief rabbis, two dayanim from the Beit Din Hagadol (The Great Court), the minister of justice, another minister appointed by the prime minister, two MKs and two members of the Bar Association. The chief rabbis and the dayanim must be male Orthodox rabbis, which means there is built-in male domination of this commission.



Furthermore, except for Tzipi Livni’s brief term during the Sharon government, the minister of justice has always been a man, and historically the Knesset has always selected Orthodox men from religious political parties as its two representatives. Therefore, the Bar Association seemed to present the only possibility for a woman to have a voice in the selection of dayanim.

The Commission to Appoint Dayanim functioned as an “old boys’ club” until 1996 when the Bar Association finally elected a woman as one of its two representatives to this commission.

Since then, the Bar Association has consistently elected a woman as one of its representatives to the commission, thereby ending the male monopoly of this statutory body.

As the only woman to serve two terms as the association’s representative to the commission, from 2003-2009, I was witness to the importance of introducing women’s concerns and viewpoints to the selection process. Despite the fact that I was the only woman on the commission, I was able to bring the voices of Israeli women and women’s organizations to the evaluation of candidates for the job of dayan. Since rabbinical courts have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce in Israel, and half of all those who marry and divorce are women, it is vital that this all male court system have some knowledge of women’s issues.

Unfortunately, this is about to change.

Yes, the Bar Association is a secular organization.

However, due to back-room deals arranged by various political factions within the association, no women will be elected to the Commission to Appoint Dayanim on November 22. A highly qualified female lawyer with many years of experience representing women in the rabbinical courts, Bat Sheva Shani, director of Yad L’isha, is the only woman candidate.

She doesn’t have a chance! It’s common knowledge that the deals made by secular Bar Association leaders have ceded to the haredi factions within the Bar the power to select representatives to the commission. It’s called patronage, and it’s alive and well in the Bar Association today. It doesn’t matter whether the representatives they choose have much experience representing clients in the rabbinical courts.

The fact that there will not be even one woman on the commission doesn’t seem to be very problematic either.

After all, women are disappearing all over Israel these days, whether it’s on billboards, bus advertisements, in military units or at public events.

Women’s voices are being silenced and women’s bodies are being erased.

AS A member of the “honorable profession” for over 40 years, I’m disappointed and saddened by the behavior of my Israeli colleagues. When I studied law in the US in the 1960s, there were very few women in the profession, sexism was rampant and I found myself being verbally harassed and insulted by my male colleagues. As one of three women students in a class of 300, many of my male classmates would make a hissing sound whenever I spoke in class discussions.

The hissing stopped after the first semester grades were published and I was second in the class. Suddenly I was approached to join all-male study groups. I respectfully declined, finding that studying at home with my toddler son was working out pretty well. Since my husband was a surgical resident who practically lived at the hospital and the baby did a lot of sleeping, I was able to complete my studies successfully.

The past 30 years have seen vast changes, as women have flocked to the legal profession and now represent almost 50 percent of all lawyers and civil court judges in Israel. The president of our Supreme Court is a woman; two of the three judges who decided the Katsav case as well as the Supreme Court appeal were women and the prosecutors were women. We have the right to be proud of Israeli women’s accomplishment in the law profession.

Nonetheless, the fact that the Commission to Appoint Dayanim will again become an “old boys club” is a terrible regression. This newspaper has devoted many articles over the years to the injustices suffered by women in the religious divorce process, their claims of male bias and the need to restore fairness and equal treatment of women to the rabbinical courts. Unfortunately, women will no longer be seen or heard in the selection of dayanim. The 46,000 members of the Bar Association, as well as the Israeli public, have no reason to be proud today.

The writer is a Jerusalem-based women’s rights lawyer and served as the Bar Association’s representative to the Commission to Appoint Dayanim from 2003 to 2009.


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