Despite Move to Fight It, Critics Say Israel Pays Benefits to 'Single Moms' in Polygamous Marriage

National Insurance Institute says relevant directives regarding suspected cases of polygamy were only approved a year ago

Muslim women in Be'er Sheva. 
נשים מוסלמיות בבאר שבע. 911 רווקות מוסלמיות עם ילדים קיבלו בשנה שעברה גמלת הבטחת הכנסה מהמוסד לביטוח לאומי
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Last year, 911 single Muslim women with children collectively received 29 million shekels ($8.3 million) in income assistance from the National Insurance Institute. In light of the Muslim religious prohibition against having children out of wedlock, the cases have raised suspicions that some of the women are actually in polygamous marriages, which are illegal in Israel.

A year ago, the NII was instructed to report cases of concrete suspicion of polygamy to the police, and has so far submitted 22 case files. It has not, so far, declined benefits on the basis of polygamy.

The nonprofit group Lavi obtained the NII figures through a freedom of information request. The data did not include the women’s place of residence, but the figures do indicate that about two-thirds of the women are Bedouin.

Since polygamous marriages are not registered with the state, there are no precise figures on the extent of the practice. In July 2018, a committee headed by then-Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor issued recommendations on how to curb the phenomenon. The Central Bureau of Statistics informed the committee that it estimated that around 6,180, or 18.5 percent, of Israeli Bedouin men with families in the Negev had more than one wife.

The Palmor report noted an increase in the number of women registering as “independent parents” – adults who are raising one or more children without a partner – therefore becoming eligible for significantly higher benefits from the NII. That figure increased from 2,304 in 2014 to 2,540 in 2016, and the report raised the suspicion that some of the women who registered as single mothers may have lied on their applications in order to receive the higher levels of benefits.

It was only in May, some 10 months after the recommendations were issued, that the NII formulated a protocol for submitting suspicions of polygamy to the police, but the recommendations were not confirmed by an ministerial committee until July of last year. The NII said one investigator will be assigned to the issue beginning this week and it is in the process of hiring two more investigators.

In January 2017, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit introduced a new policy of increased criminal enforcement of the law outlawing polygamy. His directive made the police responsible for gathering information on suspected cases of polygamy, which would then be acted upon by the prosecutor's office, which would file indictments. Polygamous marriages entered into prior to January 2017 were exempted from prosecution unless the relationship involved exceptional circumstances, including violence or an underage spouse.

Amichai Yogev of the right-wing nongovernmental organization Regavim, which presented research to the Palmor committee, told Haaretz that the NII, which he said has one of the best databases for dedecting polygamy, is not complying with directives. “They are doing almost nothing with the data and aren’t working quickly enough to hire investigators,” he said.

In response, however, the NII was an "active partner" in the Palmor committee's deliberations and has been implementing the committee’s recommendations since they were approved in July 2018 by the ministerial committee. The NII said it was actively searching for candidates to fill the new positions for investigators and that in the meantime it was using private detective agencies to help with the investigations.

“We drew up a joint protocol with the Israel Police for the submission of concrete information in cases raising suspicions of polygamy and have submitted 22 files with information on alleged polygamy crimes,” the NII said.

The Palmor report noted that in light of the Muslim religious prohibition of having children out of wedlock, when a Muslim woman registers as a single mother, it raises suspicion that she is a member of a polygamous family.

The NII noted that the protocol, which also applies to other government organizations, specifies that information should only be turned over to the police when there is concrete evidence of a polygamous marriage, such as a marriage certificate. “An indication of such family status alone is not sufficient, and we need to examine the cases and determine whether additional evidence and proof exists,” the NII said.

“With regard to the single women mentioned in the report, the assumption is that the vast majority of the marriages, if any, took place before January 2017,” and are therefore exempt from the directive to pursue criminal charges, the NII said.

“It should be stressed that the NII is not an enforcement agency and its purpose is to aid disadvantaged populations. The Israel Police are the agency that is responsible for enforcing the law and the courts are responsible for punishment,” the statement said.