On the Backs of Young Children

Along with the debate raging about the exclusion of women from the public sphere, a battle is being waged against women to eliminate a legal presumption on the custody of young children in divorce cases.

There isn't a self-respecting person, institution or politician who didn't feel an obligation to speak out on recent cases of the exclusion of women from the public sphere. But at the same time, another dramatic battle is being waged against women on the quiet - the battle to eliminate a legal presumption on the custody of young children in divorce cases.

The presumption holds that in the event of divorce, it's preferable for the mother to have custody of children up to age six. In recent years, men's rights organizations have waged all-out war to repeal this presumption, claiming it violates the principle of equality, discriminates against men and prevents them from having contact with their children.

However, there is no basis for any of these arguments. The custody at issue relates only to the child's principal residence; both parents share legal custody equally in any event, and visitation rights in Israel are among the most liberal in the world. An award of custody to one parent doesn't preclude the other from seeing the children whenever he or she would like.

Regarding alimony, National Insurance Institute data shows that since 1972, the state has paid NIS 4.1 billion (! ) in alimony that men failed to pay despite court orders. So what is the fight really about? It's about pressuring women to forgo alimony and their share in the division of property.

In every country where the presumption that mothers should get custody of young children has been repealed, the same thing has happened. Most of the children have remained in their mothers' custody. But alimony support has been reduced, making it much harder for mothers to support themselves and provide properly for their children.

This is so because despite the fact that more men are now actively involved in the physical aspects of child-rearing, most of the work still falls on the woman. The so-called equal division of responsibilities, which ignores the fact that women are the primary caregivers, once again treats women's work as transparent and relegates it to the status of gratis work.

The fact is that women in general, and feminists in particular, want fathers to be greatly involved in child-rearing. It's obvious that this is best for the children themselves; it also promotes equality and provides women with a great deal more freedom in their daily lives. Yet this is not up to women alone to achieve.

And it's not what this campaign is all about. It's about stripping women of the only protection they have in a system that gives preference to men in both marriage and divorce.

This is especially true in Israel, since here, such matters are dealt with exclusively by the rabbinic establishment. The rabbinate is composed entirely of men and bases its rulings on Jewish religious law, which favors the man. Thus in practice, the state has made it necessary for women to cling to what little protection they have.

The battle over the custody presumption is currently being waged in many countries, and in all of them, the organizations pursuing the elimination of this presumption are an unrepresentative bunch of violent men who have no compunction about smearing world-renowned female academics, threatening activists from women's organizations, lying to the media and the public and pressuring political and professional establishments.

These men are not fighting for equality in paternity leave or in days off from work to care for their children, nor are they fighting for flexible work hours. As long as they are married, the traditional division of labor actually suits them just fine.

Rather, this is part of the backlash against women's progress in being seen as people with human rights. Until 100 years ago, the judicial system didn't deal at all with the issue of child custody. Children simply belonged to their fathers. The battle these men are waging now is about such ownership - of women, children and money.

The brutal campaign by men's organizations has led to formation of a public committee, the Shnit committee, which is examining the custody presumption for young children. It is due to submit its recommendations to Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman in the coming days. But it is telling that the panel's members are mostly men, including its chairman, Dan Shnit.

A minority of panel members took the position that custody should go to the parent who is the primary caregiver. That is fair; it also invites fathers to assume at least half the responsibility for child care during the marriage and to continue that role after a divorce.

When gender-segregated buses are eliminated, along with the rabbinical courts' jurisdiction over marriage and divorce; when equal wage legislation is enforced and women have equal representation in the Knesset, the cabinet and senior and middle management posts; when there is state-funded day care for children from the age of three months, then go ahead and eliminate the custody presumption in favor of women. But until then, don't profiteer on the backs of young children.

Read this article in Hebrew