In many ways, Israel is a modern country with modern laws and culture. Aside from the scenery and language, it has a lot in common with America, Canada or other Western societies. However, due to the Jewish tradition, there are some areas that may seem a little bit backwards. One of those is the area of divorce.
While it may be wrong to say that higher divorce rates are a good thing (certainly many people see this as the decline of civilization), there is still something about the higher rates that suggests increased freedom and women’s rights. Israel, if judged by these standards, is not free or fair to its women.
Divorce in Israel
The divorce rate is an astonishingly low 0.4%, which sounds great until you realize the reason for this is not marital bliss. Jewish women cannot get a divorce without the consent of their husband, even if abused, cheated on or abandoned. If the husband is in a coma or vegetative state, or in prison, there is nothing that can be done. Approximately 10,000 women in Israel circa 2000 could not get a divorce because of their husband’s refusal to sign off. Often, the men will only divorce the wives if they receive a payment. (Interestingly, there are also 300,000 Israelis who cannot marry because one of the partners is not Jewish, or his or her Jewishness cannot be established. Non-Jews cannot be married within Israel.)
The reason the laws are so strict and male-dominated is because only rabbis, not judges, have jurisdiction over divorce and have since 1953. (Before 1953, “Knesset Israel” courts had authority over Jews voluntarily registered with it.) And the divorce laws are Orthodox, despite not all Jews being Orthodox (some are secular, reformed, etc.). Israel, modern in most ways, forces everyone to be Orthodox in practice, at least in matters of the family. Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan explains why when he says, “You have to understand, when the state of Israel was created, Jews came here from all over the world, and the only thing that could unite them was to create one Jewish legal authority that would combine all the traditions and make everybody into one people.”
On the bright side, if divorce is granted, the courts tend to favor the mother for child custody, although they often place boys 8 and older in the care of their father when the parents disagree. This also depends on whether the post-divorce issues of custody and alimony are handled by the rabbinical courts or family courts, as either can make judgments at this point. But that is not the end of the women’s troubles.
Women cannot remarry, as they are then considered unclean. And the children of the marriage, or any future union, are considered mamzerim (illegitimate) once the parents divorce.
Day Care in Israel
Interestingly, despite the male-dominated marriages, Israel is surprisingly egalitarian with the way they raise their children. Day care centers in Israel are ubiquitous, considered by many as a child’s second home, and they may start as early as three months. Outside observers consider them to be “relatively good”, and anyone (regardless of income) can get their child enrolled. Tuition is on a sliding scale based on income, with costs starting at 600 shekels a month and going up as needed. State subsidies are granted to families with four or more kids to pay for day care and summer camp
There are 330 centers in Israel with 25,000 children there, with one teacher per 5 or 6 kids. Centers can be run by cities, religious institutions or private parties. Nothing is based on gender, with all games and toys being neutral. And each day care has a bomb shelter, because in the Middle East you never know.
Many day care centers are run by Na’amat, the Women’s Labor Zionist Organization, the name (Nashim Ovdot U’Mitnadvot) being Hebrew for “Movement of Working Women and Volunteers”. Na’amat is the largest women’s movement in Israel with a membership of 800,000 women, representing the entire spectrum of Israel society, most of whom are volunteers. The organization has 100 branches, affiliated to local Labor Councils, in cities, towns and settlements all over the country. 260 centers with 17,000 children between infancy and four years attend a Na’amat center.
Project Head Start in the US was allegedly modeled after Na’amat (according to Na’amat), though others claim the American project, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, was actually based on The Little School of the 400, created in 1957 to meet the educational needs of Spanish speaking children in Houston, Texas. The goal of that program was to teach 400 basic English words to help Spanish-speaking children to manage instruction given in English in the regular public educational system.
In order for Israel to progress, one can only hope that the children growing up in the equality of day care will take the lessons learned there and apply it to their families. Some day the laws will change (Orthodox Judaism will not live forever), but until then, the best way to move marriage equality forward is to raise boys to respect women, rather than teach them to trap them in an abusive marriage or blackmail them.
Change always comes, but how soon is a matter of debate.
Garcia-Navarro, Lourdes. “Under Israel’s Divorce Laws, Men Get The Final Word”, NPR.org April 7, 2010