Life in Israel is endlessly complex, and for a long list of reasons, among them they heterogenous cultural palette of the country. Anyone in the justice system must first and foremost be cognizant of cultural distinctions and then be sensitive in applying them to the cases before them. I would make the argument that this is true for everyone in the system, but even more so for judges and social workers dealing with family issues.
Judge Assaf Zagury of the Tiberias Family Court recently delivered an interesting decision which demonstrates an ability to take social and cultural mores into account. You can find the entire decision in Hebrew here.
A couple from the Druze community in Israel married, and divorced just ten months later, shortly after the birth of their son. The father was formally registered as the child’s father at the Ministry of Interior. Shortly after the divorce, the father filed a petition to the Family Court, which he described as a suit to prove his “non-paternity.” In that framework, he asked the court to order that the child undergo a DNA test to verify his claim that he was not the biological father. The mother objected. (Parenthetically, the law in Israel is such that even if the mother would agree, the parents would still require the court’s approval for DNA testing of a minor).
The court ultimately rejected the father’s request on the grounds that the petition was not in the best interests of the child and could even endanger the mother’s life.
The decision provided an excellent survey of research around the issue of so-called “honour killings” (a more apt name might be dishonour killings since they dishonour both their perpetrators and their perpetuators) and came to the conclusion that if there was even the slightest chance that the DNA test would reveal that the child was not the father’s, the mother’s life would be in danger.
In addition to the research – including government committees – around honour killings, the judge relied not but on the opinion of the social worker assigned to the case. The social worker’s mandate was to assess the best interests of the child in light of the paternity suit and she was not specifically an expert witness on the social mores of the Druze community. Nonetheless, the judge took very seriously her analysis – based on her own cultural background, specifically that she was raised in the Israeli Arab community – that the mother’s life would indeed be in danger were the father not the biological father. This, given the threat that a scientific finding that the mother had had intimate relations with a man other than the child’s father, would most likely lead to her being killed by her own family, or someone from the father’s clan seeking to avenge her honour.
Another factor which the judge considered in rejecting the petition, was the cost to the child in his closed Druze village were the test to reveal that the father is not the biological father. Despite the fact that the father is currently disseminating rumours to that effect, the social worker maintained that given the social structure of the village, the child could live with rumours to that effect, rumours that would eventually die down. However, if there was irrefutable evidence proving that the child was fathered by another man, he would be somewhere near the bottom of the societal totem pole, a standing that would hinder his development and acceptance by the community.