Documentary Film Fans Sparks of Change in Israeli Family Law

Can a film change child custody laws in Israel?  We’ll find out the answer to that question soon, possibly as early as later this month.  Read about it here (Israel National News, 8/26/11).

The documentary film Fathers’ Rights directed by Isri Halpern was six years in the making.  It tracks the lives of four Israeli fathers and the trials and tribulations they face, all courtesy of Israel’s family laws that blatantly discriminate against fathers. 

Much of what the film shows will probably seem like old news to people current on family courts in the U.S., Europe, Australia, Canada and the like.

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?”

So the false allegations of domestic abuse are there as well as the crazy prohibitions on fathers communicating with their children.  Many readers will remember the Australian dad last year who was jailed for sending his child a birthday card in violation of a family court order prohibiting contact.

What Israel adds to the anti-father bent of family courts that other countries don’t is it’s across-the-board award of sole custody to mothers of children under the age of six.  In most of the countries I report on, that’s the all-but-universal practice, but in Israel, it’s the law.

And it’s that law, that a panel of the Knesset is evaluating with an eye toward change.  The same panel is considering whether to punish mothers who make false claims of domestic violence or child abuse in order to deprive a child of its father.  Consideration of those two changes to Israeli law is directly attributable to the film.

Another practice that will be familiar to those interested in family court reform is that of child welfare agencies ignoring fathers when they take a child from its mother.  That too happened to one of the four fathers in the film.

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.

Then there’s the issue of child support that in Israel is called mezonot.  There as here, the usual draconian penalties apply to failure to pay.  There as here, the money is often more for supporting Mom than the child.

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.”

Director Halpern calls fathers’ rights in family courts a “human rights issue,” which it assuredly is, as is the issue of false claims of abuse made against dads.  Part of that is the uniform unwillingness of courts to punish those who level false allegations.

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.”

Indeed, recent research in the U.S. has shown that claims of abuse are the single major factor thwarting the Oregon legislature’s statutory enactment aimed at greater shared custody.  That research showed that the vast majority of the claims were made by mothers.  Other research has shown that abuse claims filed in the course of custody cases are often false, with estimates ranging from 20% to 80%.  Family attorneys across the country have for years bemoaned the use of abuse claims to gain an upper hand in custody matters.  Apparently Israel is no different.

Interestingly, the film seems to have already made one convert.

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.

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