The Israeli Millet System: Examining Legal Pluralism through Lenses of Nation-Building and Human Rights
Israel Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 631-654, 2010
24 Pages Posted: 27 Dec 2010 Last revised: 27 Oct 2011
Date Written: October 27, 2011
Israel still maintains a highly pluralistic personal status system (millet) that it inherited from the Ottoman Empire. Under this archaic system, religious courts of fourteen ethno-religious communities, staffed with their very own judges who apply religious and customary laws of their own communities, are granted exclusive jurisdiction over matters of marriage and divorce and concurrent jurisdiction with the civil courts in regard to issues of maintenance and succession. Millet-like systems had been historically employed by imperial powers to segregate and categorize their colonial subjects into racial, ethno-religious and tribal groupings, exclude the subaltern groups from the spoils of power, and deny them the terms of equal membership in the political community. In many regards, the retention of this archaic system by such a modern and democratic polity as the Israeli state was quite paradoxical, given that from the very moment of its inception, the Jewish state has pledged itself to guarantee its citizens’ freedom of religion and conscience, and to ensure complete equality of its all inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or gender. In this respect, there are two central puzzles guiding the analysis below: One, why Israel, as a highly centralized and democratic polity, has maintained such a fragmented system of law and courts which accentuates religious, ethnic and gender-based inequalities. Two, how such a polycentric application of law and justice affects individuals’ fundamental rights and freedoms, and what tactics and strategies people employ to cope with the limitations imposed upon their rights by communal institutions.
Keywords: Legal Pluralism, Millet System, Personal Status, Shari'a, Rabbinical Courts, Israel, Human Rights
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