A bill enabling religious courts to serve as arbitrators in civil lawsuits passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset Wednesday.
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The cabinet decided to support the bill, sponsored by United Torah Judaism's Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev, despite the opposition’s objections. The opposition maintains that the proposed legislation would lead to discrimination against women. The bill will now be passed to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
If the bill passes, the religious courts – rabbinical, Islamic or others – will be able to arbitrate in civil suits providing that both sides agree and that at least one of the litigants is of the same religion as the court’s. The religious arbitrators will be authorized to rule on any dispute, including those relating to property and ownership, disputes between partners, neighbors, and so on.
“Why not enable two people, both of whom not only agree but also want to have a religious court rule on a financial dispute, do so?” asked MK Gafni at the plenum. “We’re a Jewish democratic state, after all.”
Referring to the opposition’s argument that women’s rights will be breached in these courts, Gafni said the bill will prohibit religious courts from arbitrating on property matters involving divorce and on employer-employee relations.
MK Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) objected to the bill and protested Gafni’s portraying it as allowing disputants to go to the court of their choosing.
“Do you think we’re retarded? If you’re in favor of a pluralistic approach that enables access to any court the sides choose, then allow couples to get divorced in a civil court, if they don’t want to do so in a rabbinical court,” he said.
“If the religious arbitrators pressure a woman to go to the rabbinical court, would she be able to object?” Stern asked.
In 2006 the High Court of Justice ruled that the rabbinical courts were not authorized to act as arbitrators in financial disputes. The verdict was given following the petition of Sima Amir, a divorcee from Jerusalem, who demanded revoking the rabbinical court's ruling over a breach in her divorce agreement. After that ruling, disputants who wanted to litigate on financial matters on the basis of Jewish law had to go to private rabbinical courts.
If the bill becomes law, it would reinstate the situation that existed before the High Court ruling. In this case, the rabbinical courts will not have the judicial powers they wield in matrimonial cases, but only arbitration powers. They will be subject to the arbitration law and the civil courts will be able to confirm or revoke their rulings.