Should Israel Jail Women Who Kill Their Abusive Spouses?

The Knesset approved two new proposals intended to make a statement about the particular seriousness in which the Knesset views violence against women, but this does not mean the work is finished

Israeli women protest femicide, Jerusalem, December 4, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved two proposals as part of Amendment 124 to the Criminal Code on Wednesday, on the matter of reforms concerning the crimes of murder and homicide. The proposals were intended to make a statement about the particular seriousness in which the Knesset views violence against women.

The original bill proposed by the government took the first step. It stated that when the killing was done “as a punitive act with the objective of imposing dominance or fear and to compel behavioral patterns on the public,” it then falls into the most severe category of murder, whose sentence – as a rule – is mandatory life imprisonment.

This case also includes what is indecently known as “family honor killings,” which in Israel occur mostly within Arab society, but not only.

Today, members of the Law Committee decided to add another, stricter criteria in which the victim is a spouse (these criteria also apply to the killing of a spouse who is a man, but as found in practice this phenomenon applies to the killing of women) and the act of homicide or murder was carried out on a background of systematic or long-term abuse of the victim, physically or psychologically.

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In addition, it was decided that the victim of severe abuse – of the victim or a family member – who kills the abuser (when the killer is in a state of mental distress as a result of this abuse) – will not be charged with the crime of murder any longer, according to the present law (which does allow leniency in the judgment) but for homicide in circumstances of diminished culpability.

The maximum punishment for such a killing was set at 15 years in prison, compared to the previous limit of 20 years, according to the government’s bill.

These changes in the bill were introduced at the initiative of women’s organizations and Knesset members Yael German (Yesh Atid), Michal Rozin (Meretz), Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) and Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List). They, along with the chairman of the committee, other committee members, the government, which agreed to the changes, and legal advisers of the Knesset and from the Attorney General’s Office, should all be complimented.

But this does not mean the work is finished. It would be proper to outlaw with a special and severe punishment – a maximum of 15 years in prison – any systematic or ongoing spousal abuse, even when it does not lead to lethal results.

These are most of the cases of abuse. And if within the framework of these incidents the abuser caused the death of the spouse, even out of negligence, an additional severity is required (up to 20 years in prison).

If we want to deter the abuse of women, we must deal with the phenomenon itself using a prohibition that applies directly and expresses the great seriousness with which society and the legislature views it.

We must continue to examine wisely in the next Knesset the possibility of making the sentence of the murderer harsher, when the murder is an expression of dominance or objectification of the victim.

We must not make do with reducing the punishment in cases of the killing of an abusive spouse. The law finds it difficult to take into account such a case, mostly because of the difficulty in understanding properly the nature of the distress and the helplessness of the victim of abuse.

The Public Defender’s Office must examine, in the appropriate instances, whether it is a case that requires full exemption from criminal culpability.

The main difficulty from a legal perspective is that killing the abuser does not fall simply into the definition of self-defense, because as a result of the differences in power the victim of abuse cannot wait for another attack against them and then respond. She must act first to prevent the next attack, whose danger is always lying in wait.

But it is not appropriate to consider the killing as being independent of the background. We must take into account the overall context, in which the victim is subject to a systematic web of severe abuse. She is trapped in a reality that makes her – to a great extent – helpless and harms all her abilities, such as her self-image, self-respect and self-control.

The full responsibility for this situation belongs entirely to the abuser. The act the woman carries out to rescue herself from the horror, in circumstances in which she was unable to receive help from government authorities, is an act that stems from a lack of any other option.

It is done to save her from criminal acts against her, whose implications and accumulation are many times more severe than the typical attacks that give rise to the right to self-defense. The legal system needs to recognize the uniqueness of such a situation, which combines together three legal defenses: self-defense, necessity and a lack of control – even if none of them exists in its full extent.

It is an illusion to think that the root canal treatment of the phenomenon can be limited to the field of legal norms. They must be enforced with full resolve, so that the abusers will not have any hope of evading justice.

Today’s victim of abuse could very well be the victim of murder tomorrow. It is not only the legal authorities who need to do the maximum, the social services need to do so too. Mostly, we must bring about the quick splitting apart of family units that have become toxic.

As far as is possible to remove the abusers from their evil path through educational means, we must take them. It is insufferable and unforgivable that a woman is murdered because the state did not ensure enough places in shelters.

The legal norms require social backing, mostly on the part of all those who have a position of leadership – unqualified condemnation and denunciation without a hint of understanding or tolerance toward those who commit violence.

And of course, the struggle will not succeed without uprooting the source of the evil – an attitude that women are inferior or dangerous temptresses, the agents of the evil inclination. This is where an educational effort is required throughout the entire educational system, formal and informal. A society in which women are treated using separation and exclusion invites violence against them.