International Women’s Day

Secular and religious women Jaffa 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Secular and religious women Jaffa 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Following a checkered history which began in 1909, the General Assembly of the United Nations invited member states to proclaim March 8 UN Day for Women’s Rights and World Peace in 1977. Thus was born today’s International Women’s Day.
In Israel, as much as it would be marvelous to see the day turned into kevod haberiyot day, celebrating mutual respect among all people, events during the week of International Women’s Day prove there is still a need to guarantee the concept when applied to women. In fact, in practice, it is women who are protecting specifically women’s rights by safeguarding both the principle as well as its practical application.
The case in point is the private member’s bill to be put before the Knesset, which was initiated this week through the first cooperative legislation between the Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi parties. In their joint venture, MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) and Shuli Mualem-Rafaeli (Bayit Yehudi) related to the selection process for the State Committee for the Appointment of Dayanim (Rabbinical Court Judges).
While the problem of female representation (or more specifically, the lack thereof) on the committee and proposed solutions have been proposed by ICAR (the International Coalition of Agunah Rights) and other organizations, no practical resolution has been forthcoming. This committee selects the rabbinical court judges who are entrusted with sole legal jurisdiction over the personal status of every Jewish citizen or resident of Israel.
The determinations of the committee members ultimately affect the general halachic philosophy and policy of the rabbinical courts. At the present time the committee is composed solely of male members (even though there were female members in the past). Under these conditions, women are excluded from participating in the formation of the court which ultimately determines the life issues (such as marriage and divorce) of the Jewish population, of which women comprise half.
Although there was a bill proposed in the previous Knesset, by five MKs including one male, Uri Orbach, MK Orbach is the exception that proves the rule. That being said, that attempt to rectify the practical exclusion of women from influencing the process of dayan selection failed. In today’s 19th Knesset, it took two women, two female Knesset members, to provide a potentially concrete solution.
The bill proposed by MKs Lavie and Mualem-Rafaeli expands the number of members of the Committee for the Appointment of Dayanim from its present 10 (which is in and of itself a problem as it is an even number) to 11 members. According to clause 6(a) of the Law of Rabbinical Court Judges 1955, the current makeup of the 10-member committee includes: the two chief rabbis, two presiding rabbinical court judges of the High Rabbinical Court, the Justice Minister, an additional member of the government, two MKs and two lawyers representing the Israel Bar Association.
Due to the inherent structure of the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts, the rabbis who hold these positions are always male. This, in turn, determines that four places on the committee can be filled only by men, as the first two categories of representatives listed in the law are the chief rabbis and judges. Note that the remaining positions are comprised of persons who are democratically elected. Thus the remaining positions can theoretically be filled by either men or women. (Today they are all men – and therein lays the problem.) Overcoming political predispositions of past years, MKs Lavie and Mualem-Rafaeli reserve four places for women on their proposed 11-member panel – parallel to the four places on the committee reserved for men. One place is to be filled by a female rabbinical court advocate while the government, the Knesset and the Bar Association are to respectively nominate one male and one female representative.
In requiring the various selections processes to see to the appointment of four women to the committee, the two MKs have indeed rectified the situation and should be lauded for doing so.
Even though the legal language chosen to couch the proposal leads to actually setting the number of women members exactly at four out of 11 and no more, this is a vast improvement over the present situation in which women have no guaranteed representation in the state body.
Given the unique Jewish-democratic character of the State of Israel and its realization in the form of the State Rabbinical Court in which solely male judges preside; and given the fact that a full 50 percent of those seeking justice within those halls are women, the solution provided by the two new female MKs is a significant step in the right direction.
MK Aliza Lavie and MK Shuli Mualem-Rafaeli have responded in a positive manner to the continuing need to celebrate International Women’s Day in Israel.
May it soon turn into a day celebrating kevod haberiyot.
The writer is a rabbinical court advocate; coordinator of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel and the Jewish Agency; one of the authors of the prenuptial “Agreement for Mutual Respect”; and a member of ICAR.