In Israel, Calls to Up Enforcement of Anti-polygamy Laws

Criminal offense officially carries five-year prison sentence, but indictments are rarely served. Problem is seen as most prevalent among Bedouin community.

Women attending a conference discussing polygamy in the Bedouin community, Ben-Gurion University of the Desert, Be'er Sheva, March 2015.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The attorney general on Sunday called on Israel’s authorities to increase enforcement of the laws concerning polygamy. Although the practice is officially a criminal offense in Israel with a five-year prison sentence, indictments are rarely served in practice.

Polygamy is most prevalent among Israel’s Bedouin community, with some 36 percent of the community in polygamous relationships, according to police data. A recent report on Channel 10 claimed that a number of Israeli rabbis affiliated with the Chief Rabbinate allowed some Orthodox Jewish men to take a second wife.

“Despite the existence of the crime of polygamy and rulings on the issue, there has been little enforcement on the criminal level for this offense,” Avichai Mendelblit wrote in his new directive. “Given the persistence of the phenomenon, and its severity, enforcement of the law against polygamy must be stepped up,” he added.

In addition, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked will seek government approval for a program that would involve several ministries advancing civilian means to tackle the phenomenon, including teaching in schools.

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, one of the two sponsors of the so-called Facebook bill, on Dec. 12, 2016.
Emil Salman

The new directive says that in cases where a man is convicted of polygamy, the prosecution should demand the full punishment allowed by law, including imprisonment.

Israeli Arab feminist groups and lawmakers responded to the report, saying that though they rejected polygamy, they did not think criminal legislation was the best route for dealing with it. They also voiced wonderment at the motivation for the initiative.

"We need long term solutions for promoting the status of Arab women, especially Bedouin, and advancing higher education and employment opportunities for [Arab] women," said Rawia Aburabia, a lawyer involved with Israeli Bedouin women's rights. "I very much hope that no foreign interests are behind Shaked's initiative that is not connected to women's welfare – in light of her political positions and her past statements regarding Palestinians in Israel."

The circumstances under which the prosecution should push for punishment were also clarified: for example, in cases where the accused is a married man in a polygamous marriage where the wife is considerably younger than him; or in cases where the marriage was against the woman’s free will.

“The polygamous lifestyle has a negative influence on family life, including in financial terms, and serves as a platform for further violations,” Mendelblit wrote. “For example, the phenomenon of domestic violence is more common among polygamous families. Also, neglect of children and harming them is more prevalent among polygamous families.”

The attorney general also wrote that another problematic aspect of the phenomenon is the “second or more marriage to Palestinian women who have no legal standing in Israel, or other women devoid of legal status. These women are in Israel without any family support, and as a result lack basic defense and are therefore significantly more exposed to such phenomena – including the fear of violence.”

It also cited aggravated circumstances in which the couple’s marriage produced additional harm to one of the women (such as neglect or violence against her or her children), or when in practice she did not live with her husband but remained a married woman.

In addition, cases in which the offense was committed in order to circumvent law enforcement – for instance, marriages bringing foreign residents into the country under the fictitious claim of family unification; for claiming or denying inheritance rights; or to avoid paying alimony – will all be considered aggravated circumstances.

In Shaked’s proposal, meanwhile, the education minister would be responsible for overseeing an education program dealing with polygamy. The social affairs minister would be tasked with overseeing a program to promote Israeli Bedouin women joining the workforce. The health minister would act in order to answer the health needs of women and children living in polygamous families, while the social equality minister would be asked to increase awareness of the issue.

Shaked’s proposal would also require the Central Bureau of Statistics to study the phenomenon. She also announced the formation of a team, headed by Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor, to help stymie polygamy and train government ministries and other relevant bodies.