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What is Israel’s position on Bedouin polygamy?

Currently, Israel considers entering into a polygamous marriage a crime, but it does not provide for nullifying such marriages, and cases against polygamous individuals have been almost nonexistent.
By Yonah Jeremy Bob

An interministerial report issued late Tuesday on polygamy in the Bedouin community drew criticism from all sides, as it tried to balance between discouraging the practice while recognizing that it cannot be immediately eliminated in light of complex realities.

On one hand, the interministerial committee, led by Justice Ministry director-general Emi Palmor, advocated tougher enforcement of the country’s anti-polygamy laws. On the other hand, the report surprisingly endorses permitting Israel-based Sharia Courts to register marriages for a man with up to two women under specific circumstances.

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Currently, Israel considers entering into a polygamous marriage a crime, but it does not provide for nullifying such marriages, and cases against polygamous individuals have been almost nonexistent.

Historically, while the country’s Jewish majority, governed by more modern and secular democratic principles, frowns on the practice, it has been hesitant to risk a culture war with the Bedouin minority, preferring to mostly let Bedouin govern themselves.

According to the report, there are 6,200 polygamous marriages in Israel, representing a stunning 18.5% of families in the approximately 250,000-person Bedouin sector. This represents an even higher polygamy rate than in Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

What is more, the report explained that many women in polygamous marriages do not have an obvious way to leave those marriages, even if they are unhappy.

In the Bedouin community, divorce is frowned upon and can lead to mothers losing custody of their children, and it can be difficult for women to economically support themselves.

These same economic, family and social pressures are often what get women to agree to polygamous marriages in the first place.

Accordingly, the state’s focus is mostly on preventing future polygamous marriages by filing more criminal cases and an education and economic campaign to free young Bedouin women from feeling that they have no choice on the issue.

In order to increase enforcement, the state has instructed the police to monitor announcements of weddings in Bedouin publications, and the country’s Sharia Courts have been recruited to help detect violators.
Public officials, including some in the Sharia Courts, who remain in polygamous marriages will be forced to resign from their posts.

The report also recommends campaigns to provide Bedouin women with job skills and opening 800 new preschools so that women with children can have their time freed up to work and become economically independent.

However, the report has drawn criticism from some Bedouin, including a former prominent Sharia Court judge, who say that it is part of a range of initiatives to target and destroy Bedouin culture, and from some Jewish groups that say the report tolerates and endorses polygamy.

Regarding the surprising recommendation to permit marriages to a maximum of two women, the report says that this is temporary permission to try to get all persons to apply for permission to the court before they enter polygamous marriages, as opposed to the current situation, where they usually apply after the polygamous marriages are already sealed.

There will be limits stipulating that polygamous marriages can be permitted only in special circumstances, such as if the first wife cannot have children, is very sick, or if the couple prefers to split up without a formal divorce.

The report treats the idea of immediate elimination of polygamy as unrealistic and that setting a two-wives limit and a steady reduction is the best long-term strategy to eliminating the phenomenon.

However, a number of Jewish groups slammed the report for formally endorsing any amount of polygamy. They said that the report puts little real emphasis on law enforcement and is mostly bolstering polygamy by granting new legitimacy and resources to those involved in the practice.

The groups said that polygamy must be framed clearly as a criminal act and eliminated quickly and not be treated with an incremental long-term plan.

The committee started its work in January 2017.

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