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Israel’s Rabbinical Court Expansion Sparks Concerns

Israel’s attempt to expand the power of its rabbinical court system, which mainly handles religious and family matters, sparked concerns about granting these courts adjudication and arbitration authority in civil cases.

In a preliminary vote in February, the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, voted 58-43 to advance a bill that would expand the authority of state-run rabbinic courts to allow them to handle civil cases, which grants them a status equal to that of the secular justice system, according to The Times of Israel.

The bill, which is backed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas, and surrounding concerns come amid mass protests in Israel demonstrating against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the country’s judicial system and would create a separate and parallel justice system that follows Jewish religious law if passed into law, according to Haaretz. The rabbinic courts in Israel currently oversee marriage and divorce proceedings for Jewish Israelis and religion-related matters such as conversions.

The courts also used to overseas cases pertaining to financial matters and disputes up until 2006 when the High Court found that rabbinic judges have no legal authority to handle such cases and so they were stripped of that power. This means that if the state wants to reinstate this power to rabbinic courts, then it has to be granted to them in legislation, according to Haaretz.

The judiciary-related reforms would rebalance the powers of different branches of government under the country’s constitution. They would curb the Supreme Court’s ability to influence the law by limiting its powers of judicial review and giving the Knesset the power to override its decisions.

Expanding authority of rabbinic courts would allow rabbinic judges to have adjudication and arbitration authority in civil matters. A civil conflict would be brought before a rabbinic court only with the consent of the parties, according to a Knesset statement. Still, some are opposed to this expansion.

Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of the Israeli non-profit ITIM, told Haaretz that rabbinical courts “should get their act together” before being granted more authority. Farber’s non-profit helps Israelis navigate the religious bureaucracy in the country.

“The rabbinical courts are not exactly known for their efficiency or their efficacy in terms of getting things done,” said Farber. Meanwhile, the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center, an organization that focuses on helping women with family-related issues, wrote a letter to the Israeli Minister of Justice Yariv Levin in January opposing the expansion.

“The expansion of jurisdiction, even when it is based on the agreement between the parties, in practice means that there would be, under the wings of one country, two legal systems, based on different bodies of law, and based on different conceptions of justice,” wrote the research institution, which is part of the Bar Ilan University Faculty of Law.

The institution continued: “Such a move would lead to the loss of the legal uniformity that exists in Israel, the loss of the ‘normative coherence’ of the Israeli legal system: to a situation where in Israel there will be religious labor laws and civil labor laws, religious commercial law and civil commercial law, civil tenant protection laws and religious tenant protection laws and so on.”

The Rackman Center also said that the expansion would “unashamedly” exclude women from its ranks and expressed concern that in many cases consent to litigation might be forced on women.

“This is an opening for a serious violation of the rights of divorcing women, perhaps the most serious that the Israeli justice system has seen in years,” said the institution in its letter to the minister. “It must be remembered that Torah law as it is currently applied in the state rabbinical courts is a discriminatory and problematic law for women and others.”

Jewish Israeli women who want divorce have long been impacted by rabbinic courts, especially those married to abusive partners. In one instance dating back from 2008, a rabbinical court refused to grant a woman a Jewish divorce certificate despite the abuse she experienced and threats she received from her husband who was sentenced to two years in prison for violently assaulting her, Haaretz reported last month.

In another instance, a rabbinic court dealing with a case involving a man who abused and threatened to kill his wife suggested in a recent hearing that the two reconcile instead of getting a divorce, the Times of Israel reported earlier this month.

Newsweek reached out by email to ITIM, the Rackman Center, and the Israeli Democracy Institute for comment.

Israel’s attempt to expand the power of its rabbinical court system, which mainly handles religious and family matters, sparked concerns about granting these courts adjudication and arbitration authority in civil cases.

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