This is how decisions are made in Israel in 2019: On one side of the equation are the social service professionals who recommend leaving a divorced couple’s two children with their mother; there is a professional opinion that the boys don’t want to live with their father, and there’s a father who has been convicted of violent crimes and who suffers from emotional problems. On the other side is the Haifa Rabbinical Court, which decided, despite all of the above, to transfer the children to the custody of their father, and even suspended the mother’s visitation rights. The reason? The mother no longer leads a religious lifestyle (Aaron Rabinowitz, Monday).
Yes, that’s how the fate of children aged 5 and 8 is determined in Israel today. The criterion is not the best interests of the child, but rather the laws of kashrut. It’s enough for a man to argue that his ex-wife registered the children for a therapeutic swimming course taught by a woman and fed them nonkosher food for them to be taken away from her. That a report by the welfare department recommended restoring the mother’s visitation rights and to eventually establish joint custody doesn’t interest the rabbinical court. Nor does the fact that there’s “a deep and close connection between the mother and her children,” while on the other hand, “The older son clearly harbors opposition toward his father.”
But it’s hard to complain about the rabbinical court, whose decisions are based on the considerations of Jewish religious law, some of which are benighted and primitive. The problem is with Israeli law, which gives the rabbinical court full authority to determine custody arrangements and to reject the social services’ recommendations if it chooses.
Every divorcing couple is familiar with the problem: If the divorce file is opened first with the rabbinical court, rather than in civil court, the latter is powerless to intervene. If one of the parties wants to appeal the rabbinical court’s decision, he or she can petition the Supreme Rabbinical Court; that court’s decisions can be appealed to the High Court of Justice, but the latter will intervene only rarely.
In practice the Haifa Rabbinical Court has already ignored the High Court. In 1998, the High Court determined that the child’s best interests are not meant to be determined by religious considerations but by civil criteria. “The standard by which we interpret a law passed by the Israeli legislature is not found in any religious outlook, but in a general-secular outlook,” the court wrote. Of course, rabbinical courts have repeatedly made clear what they think of the Supreme Court and the Israeli legal system in general.
The only way to prevent distorted and discriminatory rulings like this is by completely separating religion and state. All attempts to square the circle will result in continued injustice – including toward 5 and 8-year-old children.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.
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