I heard on the radio news that “women’s groups are furious” at Thursday’s announcement by Israel’s Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman that from now on women will not be automatically granted custody of children under the age of six in divorce settlements. Women’s groups are apparently planning on fighting to retain the current law that recognizes a mother as the default parent in early childhood. But I’m not sure that all feminist groups are of one mind on this issue. Some feminists may even welcome the decision; I know I do.
I had an intense argument with some feminist colleagues a few months ago about this issue. We were discussing Neeman’s deliberations around the 2005 Shnit Committee on divorce and parenthood that led up to today’s announcement. The committee had proposed eliminating the gender bias in favor of women, arguing that every case should be judged according to its own merit. A friend of mine who is a rabbinic pleader was very upset about this. She has witnessed enormous suffering of women in the divorce process in Israel, and has spent most of her career defending agunot, or women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce. “Custody in early childhood is one of the few areas of leverage that women have in the divorce process,” she said, “and now the government is taking that away, too.”