The State of Israel duly ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Children of 1989  by 1991, 25 years ago. In this blog I will have a look at some of the ways that the rights of children are handled in Israel today. It is worth pointing out here for comparison that the USA is the only nation to have signed but never to have ratified the Convention. The State of Palestine ratified in 2014. [See here]

Let me begin with a brief introduction. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s important and well-researched work Childism appeared in January, 2013, just after her untimely death. Young-Bruehl, an avid “Social-Democrat” with a lively blog, was Hannah Arendt’s special student and later biographer. She later became a psychoanalyst and wrote a masterful and largely neglected biography of Anna Freud. She wrote brilliantly, combining insights from social theory and psychoanalysis, on prejudices, feminism and “cherishment.”. In her last work she took up the failure of American society to recognize and protect the basic rights of children. This prejudice against children she called “Childism.”

In this blog, I want to explore the presence of “Childism” in the State of Israel. This issue is virtually unknown in Israel, as I will illustrate with the following tale. Just after Young-Bruehl’s death, I posted a notice on my personal blog (in Hebrew) suggesting the importance of this analysis to Israeli civil and governmental society. My post was mentioned in the press, in the parenting section. I was then invited to speak on a rather popular and well-regarded radio show. Invited with me was a public figure, a well-paid functionary who directs a national “Council for Child Well-being.” He is a whole lot better at using up radio time than I, and dominated the “discussion” with some ravings about hotels that do not permit children. Of course, he had not bothered to read Childism, so he trivialized it instead of becoming curious or allowing a real discussion. I did learn an oblique lesson from this experience, viz not to accept radio invitations without checking who else will be speaking.

The U.N. Convention clearly defines a triple obligation of a society to its children: protection, provision and  participation. In this first discussion, I wish to examine Israel’s protection of children in both theory (law) and practice. Let me first consider a devastating critique of the Child Protection Law that was included in an opinion of then District Court Justice Yitzhak Amit, who was promoted to the Supreme Court shortly thereafter and continues to be one of Israel’s outstanding jurists. The decision itself regarded a high-profile case in which a young adolescent was released from involuntary psychiatric hospitalization to his mother who has taken him to Tibet to learn Tibetan Buddhism. (Details of the case can be found in my Losing It: Second Thoughts on Six Decades in Psychiatry, Hadassa Word Press, 2015, pp. 120-126.)

Justice Amit concludes his opinion in these words (my translation):

The Law of Minors (Child Protection Law) is an archaic piece of patchwork. Its language is unclear, as one example let me cite the fact that the whole issue of declaring a child a ward of the State (Hebrew: Katin Nizkak) does not appear explicitly in the statute. From a literal reading of section 62 of the statute one could conclude that any child whose life is medically endangered could be constituted a Ward of the State. It is high time that the legislature, who bears the responsibility for lawmaking, commit itself by drafting a new law.  [The legislature has not stepped up to this challenge in the seven years since it was published – AF]

The Israeli law, similar to the American laws critiqued by Young-Bruehl, places unbalanced weight on “protection” to the detriment of “provision” and “participation.” By this I mean that a vague and overly general definition of a child “at risk” suggests that the State may intervene one-sidedly to “protect from risk” without considering that such protection may damage the fabric of parental “provision” of care in which the child “participates.” In the case in question, the State mandated involuntary psychiatric hospitalization as “protection” without considering the harm done to “provision” and “participation” of the child’s natural guardian, his mother.

In recent years indeed more and more cases have come to my intention where social workers trained and employed by the Department of Welfare have used this archaic law to ask courts (usually successfully) to declare a child as “katin nizkak” soley on the basis of the child’s medical or social challenge, without producing convincing evidence that the parents cannot provide for their child. In extreme cases the motion is brought even where parents refuse treatment with Ritalin as suggested by a neurologist who has examined the child briefly and as insisted upon by an educational facility. The threat may even become removal of the child from his home to “protect” him from parental “neglect” in failure to comply with medical opinion.

Such Orwellian situations may astound and deeply trouble the reader unfamiliar with these occurrences. Here I would like to suggest a more general framework for understanding such obvious and absurd injustices. As I have suggested in Losing It in some detail, Israeli society suffers from some of the deepest woes of “governmentality.” This term, coined by Michel Foucault, refers to a way of going about things (“dispotif” in Foucault’s terminology) in which the “population” of citizens is regarded by the State as a resource for the economic and security functions that the State requires in order balance the economic and security resources of neighboring states. As Foucault points out, this dispotif arose after the European states determined to co-exist without struggling with each other over the rights of the Emperor, in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Prior to this, the would-be “emperors” were committed at least in theory to the Judaeo-Christian “pastoral” dispotif according to which the Emperor was personally responsible for the spiritual well-being (“salvation”) of each individual citizen. Now the reader will immediately notice that no State ever openly professes to “utilize” its population, as any American can see in an election year. All candidates speak “pastorally,” but none enact anything pastoral after being elected.

The State of Israel speaks of children in this duality. There are endless proclamations about investing in the welfare of children. The Child Protection Law itself uses language regarding saving children from dangers. However, Israel has become a notorious outlier in the OECD in terms of investment in services for children, educational and otherwise. The controversies regarding the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) communities reveal the State’s sense of entitlement to mine the resources of children when plans are drafted (never enacted exactly) to force Haredi children into military (security) and occupational (economic) activity. The Child Protection Law is one example of the State “protecting” children from dangers to their ability to serve security and economic function. The assumption of course is that since the State never loses sight of its needs for such functions, the State would create environments precisely designed for these functions more reliably than parents, whose commitment just might be more pastoral (“grow up to be happy”). As a result, it will be precisely at points where parents deviate from the State’s plans for their children that the State would trump the parents’ determinations of what is best for their children.

Here we can see where the Child Protection Law is actually illegal since it conflicts with the U.N. Convention. I would suggest that the Convention sought to correct the excesses of governmentality with regard to children.  As Young-Bruehl points out, provision and participation tend to the parental side of the equation. Almost all children except in extreme cases prefer that their parents look out for the, provide for them and listen to them. Therefore, the State would be mandated to help the parents to do a better job for their children, to provide help and participation for parents in a treatment plan to better protect children. Israel’s strange law and unfortunately its growing practice does the opposite, claiming that the State needs to protect children from risks and from their parents. The idea that the State knows better than parents, I am suggesting, is not a pure culture of chauvinism as Young-Bruehl suggests, men determining ideology and women burdened with practice. I think it is useful to see the Child Protection Law as an expression of governmentality. According to this “logic,” only the State can be trusted with an unswerving commitment to fashioning the population it requires out of its children.

In future contributions I propose to discuss this “governmentality of children” with regard to educational practice, mental health services, training of social workers, divorce practice, interventions with the Ultra-Orthodox, attitudes towards adolescents and many more relevant issues.