Polygamy Committee Recommendations Receive Mixed Response

Polygamy Committee Recommendations Receive Mixed Response

July 31, 2018

In early 2017, Government Resolution 2345 (Hebrew) established an Inter-Ministerial Committee headed by Ministry of Justice DG Adv. Emi Palmor, to study and make recommendations for appropriately addressing polygamy in Bedouin society.

Since 1977, polygamy has been illegal according to Israeli law, punishable by up to five years in prison. However, this law is rarely upheld in practice. According to recent figures, around 18% of Bedouin families are polygamous, with wide-ranging social, legal and economic consequences. Many Bedouin women and their children are effectively abandoned for second wives, but may not be eligible for government child-support because they remain legally married or on their husband's land. 

The resolution included calls to "provide welfare, health, and social services to women and children in polygamous marriages in Israel, incorporate anti-bigamy education in the Israeli school system, and create outreach programs in a bid to raise awareness of the phenomenon.”

On July 9, 2018, the committee presented their main recommendations (Hebrew), which initially included a clause that would recognize exceptional cases and allow a small number of polygamous marriages, ensuring the rights of women and children. However, due to controversy surrounding the recommendation from both Arab and Jewish activists who cited that it would open "the door to a norm in which polygamy is permitted", it was removed and the following resolutions were adopted (Hebrew):  

Policy, Legislation and Enforcement:

  • Promoting more diligent enforcement of anti-polygamy legislation
  • Raising awareness and changing the culture of Shari’a courts
  • Preventing Shari’a courts from enabling polygamy
  • Reducing the number of polygamous civil servants
  • Identifying and monitoring polygamous families
  • Replacing Government Resolution 2397 with a new policy that would give Bedouin communities equal shares to access all public resources

Education and Employment:

  • Preventing dropouts of Bedouin students during their high school years
  • Enhancing technological studies and "workforce relevant" studies
  • Offer alternatives to students so they refrain from studying in Palestinian higher education institutes
  • Reduce the number of polygamous educators
  • Providing Hebrew language courses online and through other technological means
  • Establishing preschool and kindergarten frameworks in Bedouin communities and training Bedouin women to operate facilities

Health Welfare and Rights:

  • Making health and welfare services accessible to all
  • Raising awareness and developing new services

In early July 2018, the full set of recommendations were leaked to the press and were met with harsh criticism from both Jewish and Bedouin activists, and from right-wing groups. Most of the criticism stemmed around sensitivities toward polygamy and its impact on women's rights and Jewish-Bedouin relations. 

Right-wing groups like Lavie and Regavin felt that the move is "a reward and encouragement to polygamy" while “undermining the government's efforts to regulate Bedouin settlements.”

Arab feminist organizations and activists also spoke out against the report and recommendations. Rafaa Anabtawi, director of the Arab feminist organization Kayan, said she "doubts that the status of Arab women is in [Minister of Justice] Shaked's top priority", as she "only treats this issue [of polygamy] as a demographic danger" (Hebrew).  MK Aida Touma Sliman (Joint List), Chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women said the report was positive overall, but she "could not support it because of the legitimization of some polygamous cases." Adv. Dr. Rawia Aburabia, a well-known Bedouin feminist activist and scholar, harshly criticized that portion of the recommendations saying the report "whitewashes polygamy (Hebrew)", also stating, “These permits for polygamous marriages in some cases opens the door to a norm in which polygamy is permitted. Don’t fix injustice with injustice”.

Following its approval, the resolutions were met with mixed responses from Bedouin women’s organizations and feminist leaders. Many strongly oppose polygamy, but many have also expressed reservations due to language in the resolution that suggested additional motives of controlling Bedouin birthrates. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked rebuffed accusations saying "[t]he well-being of the women and children living in polygamous families is the central issue”.   

At the Ministerial Committee discussion both Emi Palmor and Ayelet Shaked defended the recommendations, explaining the report aims to bring the issue of polygamy into the public spotlight and create for the first time a government policy, with Palmor saying, "there is no quick fix, but the plan of action intends to target 95% of polygamous cases in Israel".

Meanwhile, PM Netanyahu tweeted: “I will not accept any situation of polygamy in the State of Israel – this is my directive to the ministerial committee that is dealing with the issue.” 

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