Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The Sharia State of Israel

An integral part of the West? The only Middle Eastern country in which any critical journalist or any trade unionist would wish to live? How about the only country ever described in such terms where some citizens' testimony is worth half than that of others on grounds of sex? If you don't believe me, then read the Jewish Chronicle:

Why Islamic law is official in Israel


By Anshel Pfeffer, Jerusalem

Not only is sharia law officially recognised by the justice system in Israel in everything regarding the personal status of Muslims, but the judges of the sharia courts are officially appointed by a joint ministerial-parliamentary committee and their salaries paid for by the state. Ironically, this arrangement originates from the days when Britain was the Mandate power in Palestine.

Most matters of personal status, especially marriage and divorce, are ruled in Israel by religious courts. For three religious groups, Jews, Muslims and Druze, there are official, state-appointed courts, who rule on these matters. For Christians, there are private ecclesiastical courts whose rulings are recognised de facto by the civil authorities.

The system began with an Act during the British Mandate, under which all recognised religious groups were allowed to deal with matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption in their own courts. After 1948, the system was continued but only in matters of personal status. By law, the sharia courts have exactly the same status as the rabbinical courts.

“It works quite well,” says Sheikh Badir Raed, who often appears before the sharia courts on behalf of Muslim clients in divorce hearings. “The Israeli authorities, the police and social services will almost always respect an order issued by the sharia court. I am currently writing a book on this system in Arabic, because I think that this is the best example of a Muslim minority getting its religious rights while respecting the law of the land. The only problems are when the civil law is different from sharia law as in the case of wills and for security reasons when we are dealing with a couple, one of whom lives in the Palestinian territories.”

But Dr Aviad Hacohen, a constitutional law expert from Hebrew University and the head of the Mosiaca centre on state and religion, believes Israel’s system “has two main shortcomings.

“The first is that it creates a twin-track system of religious and civil law that are not always compatible.” Over-ruling of the religious courts by the Supreme Court is not uncommon, and in 1992, in the landmark case Bavli v Bavli, the Supreme Court ruled that civil courts take precedence over religious courts.

“The second shortcoming is that the system isn’t good for everyone. It can’t deal with mixed marriages, or those who are not recognised as belonging to a religion.”

Such arrangements between religious courts and the civil authorities are impossible in countries like the US and France, where there is a strict division between state and religion, but they exist in Germany and Belgium where some religious groups are allowed to rule on such matters.

In the Canadian province of Ontario, Jewish community leaders were stunned when suggestions to introduce sharia courts resulted in a curtailing of the powers of the beth din.

Jewish courts had been conducting binding arbitrations in family law since 1991. In 2003, a Muslim lawyer from Toronto announced the establishment of a “sharia court”, and two years later, the Ontario Premier announced an abrupt end to religious arbitration of family law matters, saying: “There will be no sharia law in Ontario. There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians.”

The beth din can still rule on personal and business disputes and grant gets.


  1. As mentioned in the article, there would be Sharia law in Israel as things such as marraige and divorce are purely in the hands of the various groups religious authorities.

    Basically the problem concerning marraige stems from the fact there is no civil marraige in Israel, only religious. If you want a civil marraige then you go to Cyprus and get it done there.

    These religious bodies refuse to carry out inter-religion marraige. This in many ways enforces the divisions between the groups in Israel.

    It also throws up the occassional problem within communities. For example if a Jew wishes to marry they need a license from one of the Chief Rabbinates - Ashkenazi or Sephardic. Whilst most Jews can easily get these, some groups do not fall into either Rabbinate's jurisdiction such as Jews who are descended from the early Jewish settlements in India such as the Cochin Jews and do really belong to either tradition.

    Of course you could take the other extreme and be like Germany and indeed Turkey where religious marraige is basically outlawed. You have to be married by the state and then afterwards you may have a religious marraige if you wish.

    Germany's system comes from Bismark when he was fighting the Catholic Church during the Kulturkampf. To bust the practice of the Catholic Church forcing mixed couples before a Catholic marraige that they would raise their children in the Catholic faith, Bismark abolished religious marraige first in Prussia and then in the whole of Germany. And he and his wife were devout Lutherans.

    Ataturk abolished relgious marraige as part of his secularisation programme.

  2. None of this alters the key point: Sharia is the law for Muslim Arab citizens of Israel.

    An Israeli citizen's testimony is worth half that of another Israeli citizen if the former is a Muslim Arab woman and the latter is a Muslim Arab man. He can divorce her (quite easily) and re-marry, whereas she can only divorce him with great difficulty, and then cannot re-marry.

    That is the law in the West's alleged outpost in the Middle East.