War on the Backs of Children

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The Knesset Committee on the Status of Women will hold a debate tomorrow on clause 25 of the law governing guardianship. The clause, part of a law that has recently been the source of a bitter struggle between men's and women's organizations, relates to cases where the court has to decide the matter of a couple whose marriage has ended but who cannot reach an agreement over child custody.

According to the law, the court is authorized to determine guardianship according to what it sees as "the best interest of the minor child, but that children up to age six will live with their mother if there is no special importance in an alternative parenting arrangement." In 2002, MK Eliezer Sandberg (Shinui) proposed a bill to drop the last part of the clause. The proponents of the bill, which did not pass, are now energetically lobbying for it to the chagrin of the women's organizations. About a year ago, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni appointed a committee on the matter, headed by Professor Dan Schmidt, which is to submit its recommendations shortly.

Custody of young children is a charged subject. The anger and vengefulness involved in divorce usually focus on property and children, two matters that are difficult to separate. In Israel the question is even more complicated because civil matters of personal status are governed by religious legislation. Such legislation, the result of patriarchal thinking by which a woman's sole function is to raise children, created protection for her and for young children, which is reflected in clause 25.

As opposed to other countries, particularly the United States, in Israel both parents remain guardians of the child, while "custody" only defines with which parent the child resides. The rules of evidence used in Israel are not obvious in other countries; on the other hand, women in Israel are entitled to child support only for the children living with them, and not to alimony.

The men's organizations, working on behalf of divorced men, claim that the division of labor between men and women is egalitarian now, and that men are more involved in child rearing. Hence the court must rule on a couple-by-couple basis. This argument is not to be disparaged; many men fear that divorce from their wives will entail "divorce" from their children as well. However, the proposed solution is based on a mistaken premise.

Equality between the sexes in Israel is deficient precisesly in two areas relating to this matter: in laws governing personal status, which give men an absolute advantage (as hundreds of women whose husbands refuse them a divorce will attest), and in economic status, in which women, particularly divorced mothers, are weaker - except in extraordinary cases - than men. Weakening them further will cause further shock to the whole family. Struggles in court will intensify, at a heavy financial and emotional cost, and in using egalitarianism as an argument, children will continue to be fought over in endless court sessions.

The court may today issue contemporary and wide-ranging interpretation to the question of alternative parenting. Meanwhile, it behooves all the organizations to focus on the education of men and women to equality, and to lay down the weapons of the war between the genders. The law determines, and correctly so, that the main issue is the good of the child, not the rights of men or women.