Knesset Legal Advisers: Bill Subjecting Diaspora Jews to Israeli Rabbinical Courts' Power Is Unjustified

Government pushing bill that would punish foreign Jewish men who refuse to grant a divorce and would also apply to some Israelis married outside of the rabbinate

The rabbinical court in Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

The government’s plan to make divorce among Diaspora Jews subject to the Israeli rabbinical courts is unjustified, says the team advising the relevant legislative committee of the Knesset.

In question is an amendment to existing law being sponsored by the Justice Ministry and the Religious Services Ministry, which expands the powers of the Israeli rabbinical courts – subjecting Jews without Israeli citizenship to their jurisdiction.

>> Israel's rabbinical courts may soon have unprecedented power over non-Israeli Jews >>

The Israeli rabbinical courts’ powers include issuing orders to prevent people from leaving the country, and arrests on Israeli soil.

“Real doubt arises if determining such unusual authority is warranted,” wrote the team in an opinion ahead of a debate on the matter at the legislative committee.

Nations generally refrain from changing the personal status of people who have no material association with them, unless there is a treaty between two nations, the team said.

If the issue at stake is merely personal status from a religious perspective, international expansion of the power is less of a problem, because it can’t directly change the civil status of the person outside Israel, the team wrote.

The committee members received copies of this opinion.

Changing one’s personal status from married to divorced may affect one’s interests in areas such as property, tax or parenthood.

International rules of divorce set forth when a nation may, through the courts, change a person’s personal status, or declare it, explains the team.

They also provided examples to illustrate the difficulties in advancing with the notion, one being that most rabbinical judges say civil marriage cannot lead to abandonment of the wife under Jewish law, and do not provoke concern of illegitimacy in the children – because it’s not considered real marriage.

If anything, says the team, there is concern that suing for divorce in rabbinical court will make civil divorce harder rather than easier and maybe even provoke debate in other issues that neither of the divorcing couple wanted the rabbis in Israel to touch – such as whether one of the two is really a Jew.