MKs Levy, Lavie, Galon and Gamliel
MKs Levy, Lavie, Galon and GamlielFlash 90

MK Gila Gamliel (Likud-Beytenu) found herself isolated in a heated debate with other feminist MKs Tuesday, regarding the proposed annulment of the Tender Years Doctrine, which grants divorcing mothers near-automatic custody of children aged 0-6. Israel is possibly the last country in the world to retain the doctrine in its lawbooks.

MK Gamliel, who is also a Deputy Minister for the Rights of Students, Youth and Women, has authored a bill canceling the Doctrine completely, whereas Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) has proposed a bill that would reduce the age of maternal custody presumption to two years. Gamliel had to put up with repeated angry interruptions from fellow female MKs when she explained why she objects to the arguments in favor of the Doctrine.

“In an era in which women didn't work and women were homemakers; in an era in which women did not take part in the employment market, in an era in which the divorce rate was not one in three couples, this discourse may have been relevant,” she argued.

“We are in a different era. We are in an era in which one in every three couples divorces. We are in an era in which both partners work. We are in an era in which fathers – I know your position, I am trying to express mine... I am talking about a situation where there is no agreement... it is unbearable that when I go to a doctor for a routine examination, and I ask him – because his daughter was born just when my eldest one was – I ask him 'how is your daughter doing?' – that he will break down and cry like a baby! Because his wife is using that as a bargaining chip.”

Israel's divorce rate has skyrocketed over the last four decades, as the feminist movement steadily gained strength. However, large women's organizations like Naamat and Wizo staunchly refuse to give up any of the privileges accorded to women by the previous “patriarchal” morality. For the first time in decades, the pressure to repeal the Tender Years Doctrine is forcing a debate on the most basic tenets of feminism within the feminist camp.

The figures who are perceived as leaders of the movement, in both Knesset and academia, oppose annuling the Doctrine because they say the time “is not ripe.” They claim that divorcing fathers will use resultant custody battles to “blackmail” their wives. Proponents of the annulment say that this is exactly what divorcing women are currently doing to their husbands with the assistance of the Doctrine.

The importance of the issue was evidenced Tuesday by the high attendance at the debate, which was hosted by the Knesset's Committee for Children's Welfare and presided over by the committee chairwoman, MK Orly Levi-Abekasis (Likud-Beytenu), and the chairwoman of the Committee for Advancement of Women, MK Aliza Lavi, MKs Shelly Yechimovich and Merav Michaeli (Labor), Pnina Tamano Shata and Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid) and Zehava Galon (Meretz).

All seven female MKs besides Gamliel appeared to be opposed to annulment of the Doctrine – and were encouraged to do so by leading feminist academicians, Prof. Esther Herzog and Dr. Daphna Hacker, who also took part in the session. The academicians said that deleting the Tender Years' Clause would hurt socioeconomically weak women, and accused unnamed “men's organizations” of “violence,” including what they said were harassing posts on Facebook.

The New Israel Fund's Israel Women's Network was represented at the debate, and the conservative angle was represented by Gil Ronen, Chairman of the Familists, an NGO that fights for family values. Ronen cited a recent article by Hacker, which wrote that the Israeli “men's movement” had grown impressively over the last decade and was exceedingly sophisticated. He predicted that “the more cruel and downright evil the behavior of the women's organizations is – the faster women will leave them and join the other side.”

Prof. Herzog accused Ronen of inventing the term “feminazi” – an accusation he strongly denied, adding that he does not use the term at all.