Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed not to allow any polygamy in Israel, as a ministerial committee recommended allowing multiple wives in exceptional circumstances.
“I am not prepared to accept any polygamy in the State of Israel and this was my directive to the ministerial committee that is discussing the matter,” Netanyahu tweeted on Monday.
The committee, headed by Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked, was tasked with making recommendations for ending polygamy, which has been illegal in Israel since 1977 but is still widespread, particularly among the Bedouin population.
While there are a handful of Jewish and Muslim men with more than one wife, the phenomenon is widespread among Bedouin. A Bedouin member of Knesset, Taleb Abu Arar, is openly married to two wives.
According to Channel 10 news, there are over 6,000 men with two or more wives in Israel, and 18.5 percent of Bedouin families are polygamous.
Although illegal, the law against polygamy 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 the Bedouin.
Among the committee’s 84 recommendations were creating greater awareness and running campaigns among the Bedouin community by its religious leaders.
Controversially, the committee also suggested that in exceptional circumstances polygamy should be permitted — for example, for a man whose wife is barren, or whose wife suffers from a serious illness. It also recommended that polygamy should be permitted in cases when husband and wife have been estranged for long periods of time.
The government will have to decide which of the recommendations to accept, but Netanyahu strongly rejected any possibility of allowing polygamy.
“This is a violation of the status of women, exploitation of women and also undermines the demographic balance in Israel by importing wives,” he tweeted. “This is unacceptable to me. In addition to strengthening the weaker segments of Bedouin society we must ensure strong enforcement.”
The penalty for polygamy is a five-year jail term and fine. Someone who conducts a polygamous wedding could face a six-month sentence, but these criminal penalties are rarely enforced.
In 2017 police investigated 260 cases of suspected polygamy, but only 12 indictments were issued, Channel 10 reported.
Last year, 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.