Jerusalem Post, July 3 2000

Israeli legislature backs up high court to shield children from parental violence
By Frimet Roth [Original title: Children's Nightmare Season]

(July 3) - For most children, the season they pine for all year has just begun. But for those stuck in abusive homes, it is nightmare season. Violent parents are often restrained by their dread of teachers' prying queries when students show up in class with suspicious bruises. When they have injured them, they tend to keep them home from school until cuts and bruises have healed. Now, with teachers and principals out of the picture, children in such environments are at greater risk than they were from September through June.

We are still reeling from the shocking incidents of child abuse reported these past few weeks. There was the two-year old Kiryat Gat boy murdered by his mother's soccer-obsessed boyfriend, while here in Jerusalem, a 14-year old was hospitalized after his father beat him with a stick all over his body. He claimed he'd intended to attack his son's hands, but got carried away. "Hitting is acceptable in our family," the father explained, "the educational kind."

The statistics are foreboding. We already knew that between 1998 and 1999, the number of violent crimes committed in Israel against minors within their families rose by nearly 300 to a total of 1,817 per year. Last week, we also learned that WIZO shelters for battered women registered a 50% increase in the number of abused children in their care during this past year.

However, on June 13th, days before the schools shut their doors, the Knesset acted with uncharacteristic timeliness and dispatch. It passed into law Anat Maor's (Meretz) bill to rescind the statutory defense that a hitting parent or teacher hitherto enjoyed. The move may silence some critics of the High Court's landmark decision Natalie Bako vs. The State.

In that January opinion, the court prohibited the use of physical punishment against children, even "the educational kind." Some legal experts were alarmed by the supposed legislative role the court was thereby playing. They argued that the banning of spanking was a job for the Knesset not our judiciary. Their objections have been countered by the Knesset's recent vote.

However, at the time of the Bako decision, other voices of dissent were heard from parents, journalists and experts in the field. Some were incensed by what they considered an invasion of territory outside the court's domain - the sacrosanct family. "Besides," one father pointed out, "judges have degrees in law not child psychology."

In her opinion, Justice Dorit Beinisch conceded that some countries have not yet banned such behavior. England and many states in the US statutorily protect a parent's right to employ physical punishments that are "reasonable" and "for the purpose of either educaton or discipline." They are similar to Israel's protective paragraph that suffered its demise this month in the Knesset.

The court also cited US medical, educational and psychological experts who see no benefit whatsoever in corporal punishment of children. They decry the gap between those attitudes and the tolerance of hitting that is entrenched in US statutes and court decisions.

Next Beinisch noted that Israel is a signatory to the Treaty on the Rights of Children which went into effect here in 1991. It obligates all signatory countries to act to prevent violence toward children while they are in the care of parents or legal guardians.

While acknowledging the existence of a parent's rights within the family, Beinish cautioned that these must be weighed against the rights of children imprisoned in oppressive homes. "A child is not his parents' property. He may not serve as a punching bag to be hit by the parent at will, even when the parent genuinely believes that he is carrying out his obligation and right to educate his child."

The court also noted that Western countries including Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Austria have already legislated against physical discipline.

But there is one aspect to this decision which the judges did not broach: Its status within the Jewish religion. No doubt there is room halachically to view spanking as outside the realm of the biblical prohibition of striking "lest he flog further." (Devarim 25:3, Rambam, Hilchot Chovel u'Mazik 5:1) However, even those authorities who have permitted the hitting of children have consistently warned of its risks. They have cited increased rebelliousness, physical injury and even suicide as possible consequences.

There is undoubtedly room within halacha to reassess the status of spanking within the context of contemporary attitudes. When the authorities who permitted hitting lived, it was a mode of discipline accepted by most experts. Few ever pondered the suffering that children were thereby subjected to.

The familiar "He who spares the rod hates his child," from the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs) is a quote often trotted out even by secular spankers to butress their argument. But it need not be understood literally. In several other biblical contexts "rod" refers metaphorically to authority. Moreover, the second half of this verse, "But he who loves him reproves him early," with no mention of rod or hitting, supports the view that King Solomon was merely exhorting parents to teach and discipline their children."A smack is easy and fast ," Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, head of the National Council for the Child, said at the time of the ruling, "Too easy. It is much more difficult to sit down with children and explain things to them."

With these High Court and Knesset moves as deterrents there is a chance that, this year, some spanked and abused children will enjoy not only a safer summer but - dare we dream? - a happier childhood.

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