Panel of Israeli Ministers OKs Bill Allowing Religious Courts to Arbitrate Civil Disputes

Reform Movement, MKs, women’s lobby object to bill, which may be debated in Knesset later this week, claiming it exacerbates discrimination against women, minorities.

The building housing the Chief Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, in 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Members of Israel’s coalition government are supporting a controversial bill that would enable any religious court in the country – whether Jewish, Islamic or Druze – to arbitrate civil disputes.

The proposal was passed on Sunday in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation of the Knesset.

Sponsored by MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev of United Torah Judaism, the proposed legislation would allow courts presided over by rabbinical, sharia or Druze legal authorities to arbitrate civil matters – conditional on the agreement of all parties involved. Also, one of the parties to the dispute has to be affiliated with the religion of the court that is being approached.

Discussion of the bill in advance of a vote on it in the Knesset plenum could begin as soon as Wednesday, but its passage is not certain, given the controversy surrounding it.

In response to the Knesset committee's vote, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, said Monday that, "The bill in question will allow improper pressure to be wielded on Israeli citizens to appear before the rabbinical courts rather than the civil courts. It could also be very bad for divorced women who are forced to resort to the court system to get their divorce agreements implemented."

As things are now, Kariv added, the country's "religious councils operate private tribunals that handle arbitration of financial disputes, pursuant to the law, and there is no place to expand the powers of the rabbinical courts. This is dangerous legislation cloaked in a mask of innocence. We call on the Justice Ministry and Knesset members to oppose it forcefully."

For their part, Gafni and Maklev explained that one area the religious courts would not be empowered to rule on, according to their proposal, is property disputes during divorce proceedings.

“Religious law, at least according to the Torah,” they noted, “demands that a party to any dispute first exhaust his possibilities under religious law before turning to a civilian instance.”

The MKs added that the legislation is not designed to be a means of “religious coercion,” nor will not it allow a court to impose religious sanctions: for instance, it could not call for a boycott against a party that rejects its involvement in a case.

Merav Michaeli, chairwoman of the Zionist Union faction, predicted Monday that should the legislation be enacted, it would exacerbate religious discrimination against women and weaker groups in society who seek arbitration.

Israel is a democracy, Michaeli said, and since it has a judicial system that views all citizens, male and female, as equal before the law, “There is no reason to grant additional power to a body that views discrimination as a way of life.”

Prior to the debate on Sunday, the Israel Women’s Network had urged members of the ministerial legislative panel to oppose the law because of the damage it would do to the status of women involved in arbitration. No women preside in the rabbinical courts, the feminist lobby pointed out in a letter to the ministers – neither as judges or even as legal counsels. Thus, decisions made by the judges in those courts will likely be biased in favor of men.

The women’s lobby also stressed in its unsuccessful effort to affect the vote in the Knesset committee that rulings handed down in the rabbinical courts will necessarily be based on halakha (traditional religious law), and thus on the interpretation by Orthodox male interpreters of that law, and will thus be biased against women.