For months, the massive protests that have taken place in Israel have rallied groups across the country on issues surrounding the supreme court and judicial independence. Amid the uproar and media attention, however, Israeli feminist groups say a crucial element of the far right’s judicial overhaul package has been lost in the noise, and as a result women’s legal rights are more at stake than they have been in years.
“I think most of the public who are out protesting don’t even know about this issue, but it’s hugely problematic for women,” said the Israeli lawyer Tamar Ben Dror of the group Women Lawyers for Social Justice, referring to a subset of changes within the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul package that would massively expand the power of state-run religious courts.
At present, rabbinic courts preside only over divorce cases, with some additional will and estate arbitration and religious conversion-related cases. Under the proposal, which has been largely overlooked by the protest movement, rabbinic courts would be granted the power to officiate on civil issues for the first time in 15 years, giving them equal status to the secular justice system.
The rabbinic courts follow halacha, Jewish law, and do not allow women to be judges. According to Dr Susan Weiss of the Centre for Women’s Justice, which provides legal aid and advocacy for women in Israel, rules allowing female witnesses are inconsistently applied, and rabbinical judges have barred female witnesses from testifying, even in domestic abuse cases.
Rabbinic courts have also been accused of making it extremely difficult for women to receive gets, or Jewish divorces, from their husbands.
“The rabbinic courts act like mediators to try and get the parties to reach some sort of agreement. And I’d imagine that’s what they’ll do when they deal with civil matters, too. But rules of evidence and burdens of proof are unclear,” Weiss said.
“Even if we put women judges in there, they’ll still apply patriarchal and biased laws.”
In order to have cases heard by a rabbinic court, both parties must consent to having their cases diverted from the regular court system.
Ben Dror said consent was difficult to obtain in ultra-religious communities where women may be pressured to have their cases heard in the rabbinic system. Formally, a woman may decide for herself which court the case goes to, she said, “but informally, if she goes against this, she’s considered a troublemaker in her community, and that means she doesn’t really have equal say”.
Weiss and Ben Dror are part of a contingent of Israeli feminist groups that are trying to raise awareness about the dangers to women they believe the rabbinic court expansion poses. But creating a consensus across the spectrum is challenging in Israel.
For Arab and Palestinian women, the proposed overhaul is frightening, but so is the status quo. “Anything that is about widening authorities of religious codes, it’s something that will affect all women,” said Rafah Anabtawi, of the Kayan Feminist Organization.
But for Palestinian women, she said, “the situation is much more complicated, because we suffer from discrimination anyway”.
Some Arab women’s groups, including Kayan, have pushed to raise awareness about the proposed rabbinic changes. Yet Anabtawi said she understood why Palestinian citizens in Israel, who make up 20% of the population, were cynical about joining protests against the anti-judicial changes.
“Most of Arab society doesn’t believe they are part of this struggle, and their participation will not matter because they have been advocating for reform for years.
“They see how the police and government reacts when there is Jewish demonstrations versus when it’s our demonstration … It’s an issue of trust.”
Ben Dror said it was likewise difficult for ultra-Orthodox Haredi women’s groups to speak out against the overhaul. “They’re very concerned about the reforms, but they can’t really voice that opinion. It would be frowned upon by their community.”
Noach Korman, the executive director of Bat Melech, a women’s shelter that provides housing to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women and their children, disagrees that religious women are wary of the expansion of the rabbinic courts. He said there was just as much gendered bias in secular courts as in rabbinic courts.
“We don’t see a big difference between the secular civil code and rabbinic judges; we see differences instead between this rabbinic judge to that rabbinic judge, or this secular judge to that secular judge,” he said.
Korman believes that instead, feminist groups are fixated on secularising the legal system rather than the reality of women’s rights. “Most of the feminist movement is a secular movement, and they’re against the religious code anyway,” he said.
The subset of changes is backed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, neither of which have female members of the Knesset. The preliminary vote passed 58-43 in February.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced a freeze to the judicial overhaul, including the rabbinic expansion, in late March, after huge protests threatened to shut down the country.
But the fact that the specifics of the rabbinic court legislation are not well known by the public worries Weiss, who fears Netanyahu will advance it to appease religious factions.
“I’m sure they’ll make a compromise on the backs of women.”