Ultra-Orthodox Pressure May Keep Woman Off Israel's Rabbinic Committee

Senior Shas official confirms reports that the party closed a deal with Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman for Shas to support his bill to change the way judges are selected by the secular Judicial Appointments Committee.

Pressure to support candidates acceptable to Israel's two main ultra-Orthodox parties suggests that neither of the bar association's two slots on the rabbinic courts' Judicial Appointments Committee will be filled by a woman.

Thus, for the first time in 12 years, the committee would have no woman member. Women's rights groups have warned that the makeup of the committee will contribute to extremism in the rabbinic courts.

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Political sources have told Haaretz that Yori Geiron, a former head of the Israel Bar Association, would not fulfill his written pledge two months ago to support the only woman candidate for membership on the committee.

The sources say Geiron and the current bar association head, Doron Barzilay, will support only candidates accepted by one of the two main ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.

The only woman candidate for membership on the committee is Batsheva Sherman-Shani, director-general of the Yad Laisha legal aid center and hotline, and director of the women's organizations' legal office. "It's shocking to discover that women have once again been shunted aside due to political considerations," Sherman-Shani said.

Seven candidates are vying for two places on the rabbinic courts' Judicial Appointments Committee. By law, only one representative of the Israel Bar Association may run for election to the committee, while the other is appointed by the association's chairman.

Barzilay, who was supported in the elections to the Israel Bar Association by an independent ultra-Orthodox faction that is a rival of Shas and United Torah Judaism, is expected to backtrack on his pledge to support that faction.

A senior Shas official Sunday confirmed reports in the Haredi press that the party had closed a deal with Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman for Shas to support his bill to change the way judges are selected by the secular Judicial Appointments Committee. In exchange, the bar association chairman will select a representative on the rabbinic committee whom Shas approves.

Shas chairman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Barzilay decided that Barzilay would appoint Doron Shmueli, a former Likud and Tzomet party member who also briefly served as an MK.

As for the bar association member to be elected to the committee, Geiron's choices are Asher Axelrod, a private attorney who represents Haredi businessmen, and Mordechai Eisenberg, who supported Geiron's election as IBA chief and introduced Geiron to several influential ultra-Orthodox leaders.

Geiron had written to a coalition of women's groups two months ago: "For 12 years our faction has sent a respected and suitable woman attorney to the rabbinic courts' Judicial Appointments Committee. I pledge to you to continue doing so." But recently, Geiron conveyed a message to the women's groups that due to political pressure he would be unable to fulfill his obligation.

Geiron did not respond to queries from Haaretz on the matter.

Sherman-Shani said four slots reserved on the committee - two for Israel's two chief rabbis and two for judges - can be filled by men only.

"Particularly in the rabbinic courts, where 50 percent of those appearing are women, no women take part in the selection of judges," Sherman-Shani said. "I hope the members of the Israel Bar Association's national council come to their senses and pick a woman."

According to Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, head of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, "In light of the storm over the appointment of judges, no one cares about the appointment of religious judges, a critical issue in our lives. The public totally ignores that there is a system that is entirely male, and that now, even in the narrow, sole area where a women can be appointed, there will be a terrible setback. This shows the extent to which the Israel Bar Association has become a pawn in the political arena."

The bar association's national council, which elects the association's representative, received a petition last week signed by women MKs across the political spectrum. The MKs asked the council to elect a woman to the committee "in recognition of the difficulty women have in rabbinic courts."