‘Cultural apartheid’: Israel Bedouins outraged over anti-polygamy law

Bedouin-Israelis say government efforts to end practice of multiple wives a “religious war” and “cultural coercion.”

By World Israel News Staff

Bedouin-Israeli leaders are fuming over a proposed measure aimed at curbing the practice of polygamy in the community, arguing that having more than one wife is a cultural tradition that the government has no right to discourage.

Polygamy is generally illegal in Israel, with some extremely rare exceptions under Jewish law, such as when a first wife refuses a divorce for an extended period of time or becomes incapacitated.

Polygamy is legal under Islamic law, and Israeli state authorities have traditionally not enforced civil laws banning the practice within Bedouin communities in the southern Negev desert.

A new law sponsored by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Social Equality Minister Amichai Chikli, who also serves as Diaspora Minister, would see changes made to Israel’s current policies that incentivize traditionally nomadic Bedouin to settle in recognized cities and towns.

At the moment, Bedouin families are offered a plot of land in exchange for living in organized communities that are connected to the electricity, water and sewage grids. But Levin and Chikli are seeking to amend the law to specify that men who have more than one wife will no longer be entitled to this benefit.

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In a joint statement, the lawmakers said that polygamy “hurts women and children” and pledged that they “will continue to act together with determination to correct this grave social injustice.”

The proposed change has upset some Bedouins, who claim that being married to multiple women is their cultural right.

“This is a cultural apartheid that would not pass in any democratic regime in the world. Only in Israel,” one angry Bedouin man told Hebrew-language outlet Ma’ariv.

“This is a religious war and cultural coercion, a collective punishment that ultimately harms the women themselves. This is a form of birth control against a cultural ethnic minority… what is also certain is that the law won’t lower polygamy by even half a percent.”

Another Bedouin argued that polygamy lifts women from the community out of dire socioeconomic straits, and without the practice, many would be left indigent.

“The government is trampling on women’s rights, [Bedouin women] are weak and they don’t work,” he told Ma’ariv.

“The culture does not allow them to leave,” he said, argung that without polygamy, they “will face life in extreme poverty.”