Suit Claims Gender Discrimination in Israeli Rabbinical Courts’ Tender

New tender says it is intended for both men and women – but requires applicants to already work for the rabbinical court, effectively disqualifying female candidates.

Tess Scheflan

The state’s rabbinical courts blocked women from being hired as judicial assistants by issuing a tender that discriminates against them, claims a suit filed in Jerusalem Labor Court by a woman who had considered applying for the position.

According to the lawsuit, although the newest version of the tender says it is aimed at both men and women, it also specifically states that applicants must already work for the rabbinical courts — a condition that effectively disqualifies female candidates. Since every rabbinical court panel is assigned a judicial assistant, there are dozens of such positions at rabbinical courts around the country.

Until 2007, judicial assistant candidates were required to be ordained rabbis or rabbinical judge. A threat of intervention by the labor court that year led to the cancellation of the discriminatory prerequisite, and since 2008 the tenders merely stated that preference would be given to those qualified as dayanim.

In October, however, a tender seeking a judicial assistant for a panel of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which serves as the rabbinical court of appeals, stated that potential candidates had to already be employed by the rabbinical courts. It is this tender that is the subject of the lawsuit, which was filed in November and led the labor court to freeze the tender process. Since then, the rabbinical courts have requested, and received, three extensions to the deadline for submitting a response, most recently last week. In the interim, however, a similar internal tender was issued for an assistant for the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court.

The suit, which names the Civil Service Administration and the Rabbinical Courts Administration, was filed by a lawyer and rabbinic pleader with years of experience representing women in divorce proceedings, both in civil and religious courts. The suit says that she considered applying for the position, before realizing that for all intents and purposes the position was closed to women.

The suit, filed by Keren Horowitz and Elad Kaplan for the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status and ITIM, states that because the claimant is familiar with the rabbinical courts as part of her work, she is aware that there are no women employed in them as judicial assistants and to the best of her knowledge there are few, if any, women working in the rabbinical courts and who meet the prerequisites of the tender.

The plaintiff, who asked that her identity not be disclosed for this report, claims that the tender violates constitutional rights, contravenes the Equal Opportunity Law and the obligation to promote fair representation for women in the civil service. According to her lawyers, this discrimination cannot be tolerated in a democratic society.”

“The rabbinical court is at the forefront of the encounter between religion and state,” the claimant told Haaretz. “It’s the only place where a nonreligious Jew must behave like a religious one, by law. Especially at such a juncture women’s voices must also be heard. It would be a privilege to serve in this framework.”

Rabbi Seth Farber is the founder and director of ITIM, which describes itself as an organization that “helps people navigate the religious authorities’ bureaucracy in Israel. “As a rabbi, what bothers me here more than anything is the fact that it gives Judaism a bad name. There is no dispute in Jewish religious law about whether a woman can be a judicial assistant to a rabbinical judge, there’s no problem with that. That’s why it I think it’s sad that they are seeking every legal way to try to filter women out of the job. The feeling is that someone is trying to impose their social worldview, which is not halakhic, on Judaism and on halakha,” Farber said, using the Hebrew words for Jewish religious law.

Last month, in a different case, the High Court of Justice ruled that women must be allowed to contend for the post of director of the Rabbinical Courts Administration, striking down the requirement of being a qualified rabbinical judge. Among those likely to contend for the position is attorney Batya Kahana-Dror, the director of Mavoi Satum, an organization that helps women whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce.

In a statement, the Rabbinical Courts Administration said it could not comment on the issue because it was the subject of legal proceedings.