Out of Over 300 Polygamy Cases in Israel in 2018, 16 Reached Indictments

Since justice minister declared war on custom late last year, most cases were closed because of a directive not to press charges in cases preceding new guidelines

Sharia court in Be'er Sheva, November 2018
Ilan Assayag

Amin Abu-Sakik, 34, who lives in Arara in the Negev, was married to A for more than a decade when he met H, a Palestinian woman 12 years his junior. The two were married in June 2017, and waited about two weeks until they asked the Muslim religious court to approve their marriage.

In April, Abu-Sakik was indicted on charges of polygamy, an offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

On July 16, Abu-Sakik’s attorney, Hamud Jamal, told the Be’er Sheba Magistrate’s Court that his client “had married in the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority and declared his marriage in Israel. This is just an accepted and known phenomenon.”

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Judge Ron Solkin convicted Abu-Sakik right after Jamal finished speaking. The penalty phase of the trial is to take place next month, and it remains to be seen whether the prosecution will ask for jail time.

Abu-Sakik’s conviction is the first legal achievement for the prosecution since Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked declared war on polygamy, common mainly in Bedouin society. A committee was established, headed by Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor, to find civil ways to stop the practice, while a legal team appointed by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit forged guidelines for enforcement.

The goal was clear: After years of turning a blind eye, the authorities have begun enforcing the 1977 law against polygamy.

Since the first indictment on charges of polygamy following Shaked’s announcement and until mid-October, 15 more indictments have been served. But the figures show that most of the cases have been closed because of Mendelblit’s directive not to press charges in cases of marriages that took place before the new guidelines were published. Polygamists who took another wife before January 2017 will not be prosecuted, Mendelblit said, other than in exceptional cases such as marriage to a minor or violence.

According to the figures provided by the prosecution to Haaretz as part of the Freedom of Information Law, so far the prosecution has opened 351 cases involving polygamy, of which 297 have been closed without indictment, 35 cases are still under review and 16 indictments have been filed. Three cases have been given over to another prosecuting body.

“The moment the guideline was published and a decision was made, we received a very large number of cases at the same time. The cases that according to the guidelines we had to close, we closed. If there was evidence, we prosecuted,” southern district prosecutor Alon Altman told Haaretz. Altman said the pace of the work was good, and that he doesn't believe any case gets shelved for months to "gather dust."

Erosion of opposition

Precise figures on polygamy in Israel are hard to come by, because in many cases, women are smuggled into Israel for polygamous marriages. A committee set up to examine the matter concluded that although the state has not allocated the resources to properly assess the phenomenon, about 18.5 percent of men with families in Bedouin society in the Negev [some 6,179] are involved in polygamous marriages.

Defense attorneys are responding to the change in policy by claiming first and foremost that enforcement is selective and discriminatory. Another claim is that only the men in the polygamous relationship is prosecuted, not the women.

Since most of the cases are still before the courts, the impact of such arguments is still unclear. But a hearing that took place in the Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court last week might be an indication of what lies ahead.

Zahi Abu-Jodah, 28, from an unrecognized Bedouin community in the Negev, is now on trial for taking a second wife. He, too, registered his marriage with the Muslim religious authorities two weeks after it occurred.

Abu-Jodah’s attorney, Meir Suissa, told the court it was inconceivable for his client to be held criminally accountable when his marriage was approved by the religious authorities. “It is unclear where the state gets the gall to indict the accused without showing in any document that the prohibition against the marriage was brought to the accused’s attention.”

Last week, Judge Solkin rejected this argument. He conceded that there had been a change in the prosecution’s policy but that everything necessary had been done to make the public aware of the change in policy. He also cited the “extensive and harmful implications,” not to mention the illegality, of polygamy.

As for the response of the Muslim religious authorities to the change in enforcement: Attorney Insaf Abu-Sharb, a social activist and member of the Palmor committee, said, their opposition is softening.

“The feeling is that everyone is keeping quiet meanwhile and waiting to see if this is a whim of the right-wing government and the Justice Ministry that will soon pass,” Abu-Sharb said, adding she believes Bedouin men are beginning to accept intervention and that things are changing.

Still, the response of many in the Bedouin community shows that change is slow. “The state can make laws, but it can’t change our religion,” the chairman of the local council of the Bedouin town of Lakiya, Salem Abu-Ayash, told a local radio station.

“We are Muslims and you are Jews, and we each have to act according to our own religious laws. Religion is above the law,” he said.