Israel devises legal means to block Bedouin polygamy

On Tuesday, Cabinet members proposed an addition to a new law geared to reducing polygamy in the Bedouin sector. 

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Welfare Minister Haim Katz announced Tuesday a proposed addition to a law meant to punish those who defraud the National Insurance Institute (NII) by falsely claiming status as single-parent households.

The amendment is expressly aimed at stopping polygamous practices among Bedouin men, Ynet news reports.

Polygamy is rampant among the Bedouin sector in Israel, particularly in the southern Negev region. “Practically every third Bedouin man has at least two wives,” according to a 2012 Tel Aviv University study. It is the reason Bedouin have the fastest population growth rate in the world.

Bedouin men will divorce their wives in order to transfer the onus of supporting them to the state. In Israel, single mothers and their children are entitled to financial support amounting to 1,000s of shekels. The result is that Israel ends up effectively subsidizing Bedouin polygamy, despite the fact that polygamy has been illegal in Israel since 1977.

The new proposal by Shaked and Katz gives the NII the ability to offset the amount of money a fictitiously divorced woman with a family receives from the state agency by confiscating an equal amount from the husband’s account – without needing to go to court first.

The ministers’ move follows a 2017 report that Bedouin women listed as single parents had received ₪103.5 million in welfare payments. This constitutes 4.9 percent of all annual payments, although the group makes up only 0.08 percent of the total population. Indeed, Central Bureau of Statistics data finds the percentage of single-parent families with children among the Bedouin is the highest in Israel at a whopping 10.2 percent (compared to only 5.8 percent of Jewish families in the Central District).

Another report found that hundreds of officially divorced women have birthed children fathered by their supposedly ex-husbands.

The proposal is one of the recommendations made in July in an interministerial report on stopping polygamy, as it will decrease the motivation of polygamous husbands to shirk their responsibility to feed and clothe their families and place the burden on the general public instead. Another recommendation is to encourage job programs for Bedouin women and provide hundreds of new pre-schools so that they could go to work once they are trained.

Approximately 18.5% of marriages in the approximately 250,000-member Bedouin community are polygamous.

Recent media focus on polygamy and the toll it takes on women in the Bedouin sector have brought added attention to the issue. New, tougher rules issued by the Justice Ministry in 2017 have been more rigorously enforced and hundreds of cases have been opened against men taking additional wives.