Two Years Into Milestone Israeli Reform, Polygamous Bedouin Evade Legal Crackdown

With Sharia courts reporting second marriages to police, many polygamists are now setting up new families without their recognition, officials say

Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri
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A conference on Bedouin polygamy, Ben Gurion University, Be’er Sheva, August 3, 2015
A conference on Bedouin polygamy, Ben Gurion University, Be’er Sheva, August 3, 2015Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

A milestone was marked two and a half years ago in the state’s attitude toward the offense of polygamy. After decades in which the state mostly turned a blind eye to the practice, then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked decided to fight it. In October 2017, the efforts first bore fruit and an indictment was filed in the Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court. The following year, 16 cases were brought to court.

But since then, the number of indictments for polygamy has been falling. Law enforcement officials have recently voiced concern that the main population in which polygamy is practiced, the Negev Bedouin, have become wise to the state’s method for uncovering polygamous marriages and learned how to get around it.

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Two weeks ago, Justice Ministry Acting Director General Sigal Yakobi convened a meeting of the committee monitoring enforcement of anti-polygamy statutes. It was the first such meeting of the year, though they are supposed to be held four times annually. A ministerial committee was also supposed to meet periodically and promote the enforcement plans within the various relevant ministries. But this committee never met during the tenure of Amir Ohana as justice minister in the interim government. Three times it was scheduled and then canceled. Yakobi noted that it is “urgent” for the ministerial committee to be convened, mainly to address budget issues.

At the meeting two weeks ago, a bleak picture emerged. Many decisions made by a committee headed by former ministry director general Emi Palmor were not advanced, some due to lack of funding, some because the ministerial committee has not yet met. For example, the police were supposed to assign investigators specifically for polygamy cases but have not yet done so; the Education Ministry put together a school curriculum on the subject but it has not been funded; the Public Security Ministry prepared a list of recommendations but it also awaits the ministerial committee. The only agency that cited any real progress was the National Insurance Institute, which was finally able to recruit six Arabic-speaking investigators who are now in training, and to acquire three vehicles for their use.

The police reported a steady decline in the number of cases opened, down from 406 in 2017 to just 47 in 2020. The number of charges filed also declined, from 16 in 2018 to just four in 2020. In the Southern District, the number fell from 13 in 2018 to just one in 2019.

Law enforcement officials blame the sharp decline in the amount of polygamy charges brought on the loss of their main source of intelligence, the Sharia courts. For decades, Muslims who married a second spouse went to the Sharia court and, in a very simple procedure, the second marriage was recognized by the religious institution, which operates under the Justice Ministry. Such marriages are still possible. The state says it cannot intervene in the religious court, but since the new enforcement directives were declared, it does require the Sharia courts to report such marriages to the police.

To date, nearly all the polygamy charges filed were based on reports that came from the Sharia courts. When the new directives on polygamy were announced, the attorney general said that apart from certain exceptions, they would only be enforced when the second marriage took place after the directives were issued in January 2017. Information from other sources, such as the NII, requires further investigation to determine the date of the marriage, but the information from the Sharia court includes the exact date of the second marriage (though sometimes, in a bid to avoid charges, people have claimed that the date given by the Sharia court was incorrect and that the marriage occurred earlier).

At the meeting two weeks ago, the director of the Sharia courts noted that the number of people coming in to register their second marriages has been dropping, and attributed it to “an understanding that the courts give the information to the police.” In 2017, the Sharia courts relayed 179 such reports to the police, and by 2019 the number was down to 77.

The police representative at the meeting also spoke of measures being used to avoid law enforcement. “The more they see that it doesn’t pay to report second marriages to the relevant government authorities, the Bedouin will stop reporting.”

Southern District state prosecutor Alon Altman said there is a need for an expert from the Attorney General’s Office to help identify ways to also put together a case when the second marriage has not been officially registered.

One reason law enforcement agencies believe the falling number of charges being filed does not reflect a decline in the actual prevalence of polygamy is because polygamy is a deeply rooted social and cultural phenomenon, one that will not change in a short time. Another reason is that while the number of registered marriages among Negev Bedouin fell, the number of births registered to “unmarried” or “divorced” Bedouin women rose. A Bedouin woman having a child outside of marriage is greatly frowned upon in this society, so the figures more likely reflect polygamous families.

The pace of progress has been slow. “The expectation was that the cases would be decided more quickly, that by now there would be 10 convictions,” says the Palmor committee’s report. To date just two verdicts have been handed down. The State Prosecutor’s Office felt both were too lenient, and it appealed. One appeal was accepted and the penalty increased; the second appeal is still pending.

Asked if she felt the relevant bodies were lax about adopting her committee’s recommendations, Palmor says, “I want to do right by these organizations. But the answer is yes. Absolutely. I should have pushed, I should have followed up more. All the bodies involved have a very large number of issues to deal with, but the government’s job is to set priorities. I personally believe that if this would have been given priority, by now we’d have at least 10 convictions a year.”

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