A new documentary in Israel is creating a stir, prompting Knesset debates about the rights of men to be together with their children. Father's Rights, or in Hebrew, Zchut Avot, a play on the expression used to ask for the merits of the Patriarchs, debuted this summer and has been aired several times on Channel 1 TV.
Currently a Knesset panel, prompted by the film, is debating two different laws. One issue is a family court law (ed. not the rabbinic courts that are accused of favoring the father) that sends any child under the age of six to live with the mother automatically in the case of separation or divorce. The other law deals with a woman not being liable in family court if she has falsely accused someone of abuse or violence. The findings of the Knesset committees will be published some time in September.
The director of the film is Isri "Israel" Halpern, a veteran filmmaker best known for his cult documentary Psychedelic Zion, which deals with the Israeli trance music scene. The Tel Aviv resident has been interviewed on all major Israeli news outlets about his film. Halpern, like the subjects in his film, is a divorced father who currently shares joint custody of his child with his ex-wife.
Father's Rights follows four fathers from different sectors of Israeli society -- one of Russian background, one of Yemenite background, one a secular Israeli and one who attended a yeshiva.
In one memorable scene, the four fathers are sitting in the living room comparing notes. Two of the men met each other in jail, their ex-wives having successfully filed false harassment claims.
As the meeting is being filmed, the wife of the man in whose house they are seated, is upstairs with the children. She eventually calls the police to try and have her husband evicted. The policeman, shown with his face blurred, arrives at the home and tries to explain he is just doing his job by responding to a domestic abuse report.
In another scene, a father tells the filmmaker that he is about to commit an illegal act. The crime? Visiting his son at a youth sporting event. He is technically only allowed to see his children at the arranged supervised times. "How many days do you think its normal for a father to go without seeing his children?" the filmmaker asks the father. The father replies, "How many days can you go without breathing?"
The movie debuted at the DocAviv film festival, an annual event in Tel Aviv that showcases local and international documentaries. At the screening, Member of Knesset Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich of the Kadima Party spoke to the audience. She has been in the forefront of arguing for equal rights for men and women in family issues.
The four fathers who are featured in the film attended as well. Following the screening, they spoke about their feelings about having just viewed their own lives on film. One of the four brought his daughter along, significant because the film depicts his uphill struggle to be reunited with her.
This particular parent is shown in one scene of the film standing outside a youth foster care center where his daughter lived temporarily. Child protective services had sent her to live in the facility after she threatened to run away from her mother's home. In the film, the father laments that social services preferred to send her to a facility rather than have her live with him. The movie ends with the girl's Bat Mitzvah after the father gains full custody.
Halpern spent six years following the fathers and filming them at protests, outside family court hearings and in other locations. He spoke to Arutz Sheva - Israel National News about his film.
"In Israel, the mother receives automatic custody of the children after separation. In order for the father to gain custody, one must prove the mother is incapable. Joint custody means both parents have an arrangement. A lot of Israeli couples do share time."
Another issue Halpern discusses is what is known in Israel as mezonot, or child support payments. A father is legally required to pay the mother mezonot from the minute the separation occurs. If he does not, he is liable to have his pay check frozen, his driver's licence taken away and even be put in jail.
"A father ends up becoming a second class citizen. The laws discriminate against men. He has to pay child support regardless of his wife's income." Halpern gives the example of Shari Arison, the owner of Bank Hapoalim and heir to Carnival Cruise Lines. "She is technically entitled to child support by law. Even if her ex-husband were bankrupt and homeless, he would have to pay. Even men who gain custody sometimes have to pay child support to the ex-wife. If a father does not pay child support, one can by law can sue his parents. But on the other hand, the grandparents are not guaranteed visitation access to see the grandchildren."
"This is the 21st century," Halpern states, "we want the same equal opportunities to raise our children after divorce." Halpern says that it's biased to say that woman is the one to stay at home with the children all day while all a man can do is go to work.
He postulates that automatic custody for women is not necessarily pro-female."This movie depicts the first time that Israeli men have organized themselves on a gender basis for equal rights," Halpern says. "It's a human rights issue."
The issues of false claims of child abuse, sexual molestation or domestic violence are currently being debated in the Knesset as a result of the film. "In Israel, the courts will not prosecute a woman on false claims or false testimony for lying about sex offenses," Halpern says. "It's carte blanche (a white card). Any woman can make any claim about any man, and she doesn't have to worry that she will get in trouble for it."
Halpern is proud that the six years of campaigning depicted in the movie has changed certain laws. "Only now have they changed the law so that fathers can also get notifications from schools about their children."
Another significant change, as depicted in the film is that of the National Welfare Officer for Family Affairs at the Ministry of Social Welfare. In the beginning of the film she is shown to be against joint custody. But as the film portrays, she eventually hears requests of the fathers and changes her opinion.
So why did this veteran filmmaker take on such an issue? "I like stories that are untold," he says. "I like to show a different side of society. It's a dramatic, emotional story. Men are quieter, but we also have stories. It's not easy for us, but as the new decade comes, men are opening up and telling their stories as well."