A landmark case for religion and state in Israel...

Hiddush petitions to the Supreme Court against rabbinical courts' excommunication practices

In a landmark case, Hiddush petitioned to the Israeli Supreme Court on behalf of an ultra-Orthodox resident of Elad to annul the writ of refusal issued by a rabbinical court for filing a case in Israel's civil courts.

religious court A woman standing outside of the beit din in Jerusalem (illustrative).

Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel and a resident of the ultra-Orthodox city Elad (near Petach Tikva) petitioned to the Israeli Supreme court to rescind the writ of refusal issued by a rabbinical court (beit din) against the petitioner. The petitioners maintain that the rabbinical court illegally acted outside its jurisdiction, in a manner that constitutes an obstruction of justice and extortion by the beit din and the rabbis operating it. The writ of refusal, which is in effect an excommunication order, was issued by the rabbinical court in retaliation to the petitioner’s obtaining an injunction against neighbors from a municipal court, and it describes her act as “informing” and “rebelling against the Torah.” The petition was filed in the Supreme Court by Hiddush CEO Rabbi Uri Regev, esq. and Edna Mayrav, esq.

The petition requests that the Supreme Court order the beit din to rescind the writ of refusal and issue a clear and unequivocal ruling that will prevent such instances in the future when individuals who are religious turn to the State's civil judicial system. The growing phenomenon of writs of refusal in private rabbinic courts highlights widespread attitudes in the ultra-Orthodox [Haredi] sector in Israel that are not spoken of enough. These “writs” demonstrate the outright rejection of the legitimacy of the State of Israel, its judiciary system and its laws. The denial of Israel's legitimacy in the Haredi sector comes hand-in-hand with the rabbinic courts' aggressive efforts to maintain jurisdiction and authority over members of their community through threats, extortions, and other fear tactics. These practices do not only impend on the rights and dignity of the members of these communities but are in direct breach of and threaten the Israeli Rule of Law as well.


A simple neighborly dispute turns into excommunication

The petition, which dramatically demonstrates the conflict between religion and state in Israel, started with a dispute between neighbors who live above the petitioner, and began to illegally build a balcony without a permit, blocking the sun from her patio and would prevent her from building a sukkah (sukkot are not considered "kosher" if they are built in the shade). The petitioner filed complaints with the municipality and the police but they were of no avail. She then filed a lawsuit in the Petach Tikvah Magistrate Court and received a temporary injunction ordering her neighbors to stop building.

In order to circumvent the Magistrate Court's order, her neighbors turned to a private beit din in Elad, presided over by the Chief Rabbi of the city and operating out of the Chief Rabbis Office, supported and endorsed by the municipality. The beit din issued the petitioner a "preventative order" demanding that she annul her lawsuit in the civil court and instructing her to appear in their court. The beit din does not have any legal jurisdiction to issue this order, and can at best functions as an arbitrator if all parties accept it. But the beit din then issued a warning to the petitioner and attached a copy of an article regarding a man who didn't follow the rabbinical courts instructions and died at a young age in order to scare her into complying with the court.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, the beit din had issued a writ of refusal against the petitioner, essentially ostracizing her and her family from their entire town and community. There were announcements plastered in the streets of Elad. The announcements of her excommunication instructed Elad residents to relate to her as if she "rebelled against the Torah of Moses" because she used Israel's civil courts. Since then, the petitioner and her family's life has become a nightmare. She and her daughters stopped going to synagogue and rarely leave the house due to the high amount of encounters with neighbors spitting at them. The petitioner additionally has not been able to register her daughters for high school. The writ of refusal issued by the beit din has caused her serious physical and mental health issues. She tried to convince the members of the beit din to cancel the writ, but it was to no avail.

The fact that the issuing of writs of refusal has been continuously criticized by Israel's judiciary system and yet is more prevalent than ever before, makes this petition a potential landmark case for the growing conflict between religion and state in Israel.


A long history of writs

This is not the first time a writ of refusal has caused serious legal problems in the Haredi community. The petition quotes a ruling issued by a justice of Supreme Court Professor Yitzchak Zamir who decided in the mid-1990s that "Rabbinical courts are not authorized to issue writs of refusal in any matter or form. Writs of refusal that are indeed issued by rabbinical courts [in these three cases] are completely invalid."

Last March, Hiddush contacted the Attorney General's office regarding this matter. Several days later, the Attorney General released new and revolutionary guidelines stating that "issuing a writ of refusal with the goal of causing a civil court to dismiss a lawsuit could allegedly be a criminal offense under obstruction of justice." In severe cases, a writ of refusal could be considered a criminal offense of extortion. Unfortunately, the petitioners' additional demand to the beit din in Elad after the Attorney General's office had published their review of the issue was unsuccessful and the excommunication order was not lifted. The fact that the issuing of writs of refusal has been continuously criticized by Israel's judiciary system and yet is more prevalent than ever before, makes this petition a potential landmark case for the growing conflict between religion and state in Israel. The petitioners claim that the specific writ of refusal that was issued "caused serious damage to her human dignity, freedom of religion and worship, the right to provide education for her children and her freedom of occupation. Therefore, "the issuing of the writ of refusal must be also seen as extortion."

Additionally, the instructions of the Legal Advisor for the Ministry of Religious Services prohibit the use of national symbols in private rabbinical courts. "The use of “official” features in violation of this directive could have criminal, disciplinary, and administrative consequences." The petitioners demonstrated that the rabbinical courts' documents improperly use city symbols to imply that the private beit din has legal jurisdiction over community members.

Regev and Mayrav note that “many find themselves in the situation of this specific petitioner but refrain from complaining out of fear of causing further damage to themselves and their families. It takes personal and public bravery to bring this matter before the courts, especially in communities that do not look kindly at such challenges. The court must recognize the critical need for its interventions and assistance to both the petitioner and individuals in a similar situation in order to protect them from the illegal threats of excommunication. Instead of receiving the help they need and deserve, so many in the petitioner’s situation, lower their heads in defeat and fall victim to this extortion. There are too many citizens who suffer from this arbitrariness, extremism and brutality that come from these writs of refusal and excommunication orders."

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