Prosecutors indicted a Bedouin man for polygamy on Monday, the first time a person has been charged with having multiple wives since the cabinet earlier this year approved a plan to combat this crime.
The Bedouin man, a 36-year-old resident of the Negev, was charged at the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court with taking a second wife in an arranged marriage. Hebrew media reports said neither the 24-year-old woman nor her father had been aware the man was already married.
The penalty for polygamy, which has been illegal in Israel since 1977, is a five-year jail sentence and fine.
However, the law is rarely enforced as many such marriages are not registered by Israel’s population authorities. The Israel Police has also been reluctant to intervene in what is perceived as a deep-rooted cultural and religious practice, primarily found among Israel’s Bedouin communities. A Bedouin member of Knesset, Taleb Abu Arar, is openly married to two wives.
In January, the cabinet gave its backing to a plan to provide welfare, health, and social services to women and children in polygamous marriages in Israel, incorporate anti-bigamy education in the Israeli school system, and create outreach programs in a bid to raise awareness of the phenomenon.
“I am confident that by combining all of our forces in this war, we will take another step toward eradicating this phenomenon and within a year from today we will see results,” said Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked at the time as the proposal received the cabinet’s approval.
The Ynet news site reported that police have opened 15 cases involving polygamy since the cabinet approved the plan in January.
According to figures presented in the cabinet proposal, a third of Bedouin men in Israel are thought to be bigamists and most of the women taken as second or third wives are Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip residing in Israel illegally.
The cabinet proposal also linked polygamy to domestic violence and a slew of psychological disorders.
“Its primary victims are women and children living in polygamous families. The professional literature indicates that women in these families suffer from, among other things, physical and emotional violence, psychological crisis, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, a lack of satisfaction from marital life, diminished family functioning, and economic straits,” it said.
Among children, “many grow up deprived of emotional, educational, and economic [resources],” it said.
Israel’s National Insurance Institute, which manages and disburses state welfare benefits, has an official designation in its internal guidelines for women in polygamous relationships, referring to them as “enlarged families.” When a woman’s husband leaves her for a second wife, or the second wife is left for a third, the NII has made it exceedingly difficult for that woman to be recognized as a single parent, a status that confers often critical financial benefits.
To receive single-parent benefits, the NII requires proof that the women are living apart from their husbands, but many Bedouin women continue to live near their husbands in the hope that their presence will remind their husbands of their responsibility to provide food and other support.