The existence of parallel civil and religious court systems in Israel has implications for the equal treatment of women. Where the separate court systems have overlapping authority regarding marriage-related matters, jurisdiction falls to the first court in which the case is filed. This so-called “race of authorities” is important for several reasons. Firstly, the court that “captures” the case will maintain jurisdiction should it be reopened in the future. Therefore, even though the parties may not be in conflict at the outset, should a woman later decide to pursue legal recourse, she may find herself with asymmetric rights in the religious system. Furthermore, when a woman experiences marital difficulties that might not necessarily warrant legal action, because she may not want to risk standing before the religious court, she may be compelled to open a case in the civil court as a precautionary measure. Such pressures complicate women’s abilities to work through problems independent of the courts and can have lasting negative consequences.
A committee convened by the Ministry of Justice has been tasked to rethink this issue and provide recommendations. Its mandate only extends to the race of authorities in the rabbinical courts, but we recognize that reform in the Jewish system can set precedent and affect change in the other systems. In October, Kayan composed and submitted to the committee a position paper entitled, “The Race of Authorities Concerning Muslim and Christian Women” advocating the abolition of the race of authorities. In the interest of protecting women’s rights, Kayan advocates the civil legal system be given priority unless both parties to a conflict agree to take their case to the religious court.