Knesset Panel to Weigh Expansion of Rabbinical Court Power

Bill proposed by UTJ MK Gafni would grant rabbinical courts jurisdiction over civil matters in certain cases.

The Knesset Ministerial Committee for Legislation is scheduled to convene tomorrow to pass a controversial bill to expand the authority of rabbinical courts to rule on financial and civil disputes based on Jewish law. Supporters of the bill said diverting more cases to rabbinical courts could clear the backlog of cases in the state judicial system.

The bill, proposed by MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism), would grant rabbinical courts jurisdiction over civil matters in cases where the prosecution and defense agree to hold the trial there. "Israel's rabbinical courts have always dealt with civil disputes only with both parties' assent. According to rabbinical court regulations, rulings must be explained, and can be appealed to the High Rabbinical Court," explained the MKs behind the bill.

Naama Cohen-Safrai of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Law said the measure would exacerbate existing discrimination against women. "Women would be pressured to transfer their entire case to a rabbinical court hearing in exchange for a get," she said, referring to the traditional Jewish bill of divorce. "They also wouldn't be able to file other complaints in court after their divorce. The ruling that would be given, according to the bill, is a ruling from the Torah."

In contrast to the bill under discussion, the High Court ruled last year that rabbinical courts do not have the authority to rule on financial or civil disputes, but that such cases must be decided based on Israeli law and Supreme Court precedent.

A similar bill to that of Gafni and Maklev was submitted last year and won the endorsement of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, but was put on hold in May following a Haaretz expose. Still, ultra-Orthodox parties continued to modify the bill in an effort to expand rabbinical court authority, as promised to them by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon their joining the governing coalition.

The government of Netanyahu's predecessor Ehud Olmert also sought to expand the rabbinical courts' powers, but was thwarted amid the opposition of groups representing women refused gets by their husbands.

The group Mavoi Satum ("Dead End") yesterday called Gafni and Maklev's bill "dangerous," saying it would "lead to the trampling of women's rights and increase the existing discrimination against women in Israel."