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How Women’s Exclusion Threatens Coalition Gov’t

Update, January 18, 11:27 a.m.: The High Court today ruled that the committee that appoints religious judges must have women on it, and that women’s representation on this and other committees must be sealed with legislation. Until the issue of women’s exclusion is fixed, the committee is not allowed to appoint dayanim, or religious judges.

While the Israeli public has been getting rightfully agitated about the exclusion of women from public spaces, there are other gender-segregated locations in Israel that are barely noticed but have far-reaching implications for all women. The Committee to Appoint of Rabbinical Judges (dayanim) is, for the first time in more than a decade (since women’s groups started protesting the issue), is an exclusively male panel. Yet the government is wringing its hands, as the coalition remains hostage, once again, to the entrenched sexism of religious parties.

The rabbinical courts are one of the most fiercely gender-segregated institutions in Israel. Women are not only forbidden from being judges — a viciously anti-democratic regulation that might go unnoticed save for the fact that every single marriage and divorce in Israel needs the approval of rabbinical judges — they are also prevented from taking administrative roles in managing the system. And the absence of women on the Committee to Appoint Dayanim is clearly a matter of convention and control rather than of religious law.

Women can and should take on at the very least ancillary role in the rabbinical courts, but it’s been an uphill battle.

A bid last year to have a woman appointed as executive director of the rabbinical courts failed. And now, for the first time since the Bar Association nominated Sharon Shenhav as a representative on the Committee to Appoint Dayanim 12 years ago, the committee is all male once again — the bar association having nominated a man for its open slot last year. The rabbinical court, a body that has enormous power to determine people’s personal status, a power that is wielded predominantly Haredi judges throughout Israel, is thus without any female say.

Two months ago, Emunah petitioned the High Court to force a woman to be on the committee — a move that has legally stalled the appointment of all dayanim. And this past Sunday, the ministerial committee that decides which bills move forward in the Knesset discussed legislation put forth by the International Coalition for Agunah Rights, or ICAR, which proposes that two slots on the Committee be reserved for women.

According to the 1955 Law of Rabbinic Judges, the 10-member committee includes the two chief rabbis, two rabbinic judges, the justice minister, two Knesset members, two representatives of the Bar and another member of Knesset. Many of these slots are by default male, and thus the Bar Association has a vital role here in protecting women’s rights.

ICAR is proposing amending the 1955 law so that a representative of the Knesset and a representative of the Bar are both women. The result: The religious party Shas threatened to blow up the coalition over this proposal. ”We initially had a lot of support on the committee,” ICAR’s executive director Robyn Shames told The Sisterhood, “but then Shas started getting nervous, and so Religious Minister Yakov Margi decided that it’s a status quo issue,” which means that it needs coalition approval, and that Shas has the right to veto it. Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman concurred.

Of all the bills that have come through the cabinet this year, including limiting media rights, limiting powers of the justices, changing the balance of power in the government, creating new rules to enforce nationalism — an entire series of what has been dubbed “fascist legislation” — none of them have been considered a challenge to the status quo or threatened the coalition. Consider how many other issues are burning in Israeli society — half a million tent protesters this past summer, a country currently paralyzed by all-out strike, members and former members of government on trial for bribery — and yet none of these issues have raised the ire of the religious parties like this, causing them to cry foul this way. As if the only thing that really scares some men is to actually give women some power.

The coalition management met yesterday, and agreed to wait for the outcome of Emunah’s High Court ruling, which is scheduled to be decided tomorrow.

In advance of that ruling, Shames insists that the issue has nothing to do with the status quo: “Women have been on the committee for 12 years — and when Tzipi Livni was Justice Minister, there were actually two women on the committee. So in fact, the all-male committee is the real change to the status quo.”

She also points to a radio interview that Sephardi Chief Rabbi Amar gave last month in which he said, “We should not prevent women from being on this committee. We have not prevented and we will not prevent such a thing.”


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