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The Battle of the Sexes in Israel

Two controversial decisions are being made in Israel right now regarding the equality of the sexes.

The news that encompasses more of the country is that an Israeli Defense Forces commission called for the full integration of women into the Israeli army, causing a stir among both military officials who believe the move could detract from the military’s effectiveness and from religious Zionists concerned with the modesty issues that a fully integrated military will present.

Affecting a more specific Israeli niche but causing just as much if not more of a stir, however, is the news that the Israeli courts are considering an even more complex change — whether or not to give women going through a divorce automatic custody of young children, as has been the practice since 1962, or to award joint custody to both parents.

This change would make Israel’s custody practices match those of most Western countries, including the U.S., and would seem to be based on the same principles of egalitarianism and gender equality that inspired the idea of fully integrating the IDF and for which women so often fight — yet women’s rights groups are up in arms about it.

The problem is that what would seem like a no-brainer for most “Westernized” countries, is not so for Israel where, when it comes to marriage and divorce, there is no distinction between religious and secular law. Feminist groups argue that Israel’s divorce courts are so inherently gender-biased — and against women — that imposing so-called gender equality in this one aspect of divorce proceedings — the one aspect in which women are actually favored — will only make divorce proceedings even more difficult for women. The details of a joint custody agreement need to be worked out as part of overall divorce negotiations and the fear is that this change will give recalcitrant husbands even more leverage to slow down divorce proceedings. As Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, chairwoman of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, told the Jerusalem Post in January, when this issue was first being examined:

“In the Western world, where divorce is a civil legal regulation, it is gender neutral,” she elaborates. “There is no question of whether the divorce will be granted, it will always be granted, the question is just when? However, in the case of Jewish law, which is the case in the State of Israel, there is an infrastructure of discrimination against women. In terms of divorce, men have control over the woman’s ability to open a new phase in her life. He can move on and start a new family, but for women there is the fear of her future children being considered mamzerim. “All talk of gender neutrality is hollow here, it is a false concept.”

The reform in the law was recommended by a committee headed by the former dean of the Tel Aviv University School of Social Work, Professor Dan Schnit. Surely Prof. Schnit and his committee based their recommendations on sociological findings that joint custody is better for children overall — and women’s rights groups aren’t necessarily arguing with those findings. Rather, they’re saying that the divorce courts in Israel need a major overhaul before this particular change can be beneficially implemented.

Yet there are those who argue that parenting styles are becoming more egalitarian in Israel, and that changing this one aspect of the system can affect the overall ethos of parenting further still, encouraging men to play more of a significant role in the lives of their children, and allowing women more time and energy to work and move on with their own lives rather than focusing solely on their young children.

Without knowing more about the details of Israeli divorce law than I do, it’s hard to say what is right for sure. But the salient point that comes out of this debate, particularly in light of women’s more positive reaction to the recommendation to integrate the IDF, is an important one — that the value of egalitarianism, which we tend to espouse as universally to the good, might not always be so. Call it moral relativism – I prefer to think of it as humility – but context has proven to be, if not everything, a very big something indeed.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman