Text size

"Discrimination against women is built into the divorce system. You are in the hands of your husband. If he wants, he'll give you a get [religious bill of divorce] and if he wants, he'll retract the get. In order to appease the husband, women are required to pay, and waive property and alimony. The court was on my husband's side and the dayanim [rabbinic court judges] gave him the legitimacy to abuse me more and more," says Rachel Avraham, whose husband refused for 19 years to grant her a divorce.

Legal experts and women's advocacy groups considered Avraham's case, which ended three weeks ago, the most complicated and difficult of its kind in Israel. This was primarily a result of the last twist in the case: six years ago, the rabbinic court annulled the divorce Avraham had already received on the grounds of lack of good faith - because she had appealed to the High Court of Justice and asked it to intervene in the matter. Years of unfruitful hearings in the court were needed until the divorce was reinstated last month. Dr. Shahar Lifschitz, a legal scholar from Bar-Ilan University, believes Avraham's case is indicative of a failure in two systems, the religious and the civil. "In this case, the entire system, the courts and the rabbinic courts, all united against one woman," he says.

The lady fled

Avraham, 55, a religiously observant woman who covers her hair, married at the age of 19. She lived in a small city in the south of the country and had five daughters and one son. "The birth of the daughters seriously shook the marriage," she relates. "My husband accused me of intentionally giving birth to daughters. And each successive daughter increased the distance between us more. There were times when he abused me. The more I tried to be a diligent wife, working both inside the home and outside to support the family, the more he complained and criticized me." After the birth of the third daughter, Avraham suggested to her husband that they get divorced. He responded, she relates, "I marry for life and for death." Later on, Avraham approached the regional rabbinic court in her area, but could not move the divorce procedures forward. Each time the dayanim sent her to try and achieve shalom bayit - marital harmony.

In 1987 after enduring a severe beating, she fled with her children to her parents' home in Binyamina, taking with her only the clothes on their backs. She turned to the rabbinic court in Ashdod in order to begin divorce proceedings, but her husband refused to grant her a divorce. The case was heard repeatedly. The husband maintained his refusal, and only after 10 years were the dayanim convinced by her arguments. In 1997, the Ashdod regional court handed her a ruling compelling her husband to grant a divorce.

"Separation is not considered grounds for divorce in Israel," explains Rivka Lubitz, a rabbinic advocate who represented Avraham on behalf of the Center for Women's Justice. "When a woman leaves the home, it becomes even harder to prove past abuse."

While the fight was ongoing in the rabbinic court, Avraham approached the Court for Family Affairs regarding the division of property. In 1991, she received a ruling on the house and in 1996 on the money the couple had, but she only received part of what the courts granted her.

Another two years passed before the dayanim would impose sanctions on the husband. In 1999, he was sent to jail to compel him to grant a divorce, but on the same day he appealed to the rabbinic high court. He argued that he would grant a divorce only if he obtained a din torah - litigation in a rabbinic court - on the issue of the property; in other words, that the financial and property issues be reopened and heard in a rabbinic court. The appeal was accepted on the spot. Now Avraham was subject to extortion.

"My lawyer told me, the injustice is crying out. Accept this term and we will go to the High Court of Justice, which will order the retraction of the rabbinic court's jurisdiction," she relates. "What choice did I have?"

"Following the demands of the rabbinic advocates, it does indeed seem that there has been an increase in recent years in the number of compelled divorces," says Lubitz. "But increasingly we are seeing a retreat. You fight for 12 years to get the court to compel a divorce, but then when the husband presents what the court deems a 'justified condition' it essentially wipes out years of struggle, neutralizes the decision to compel a divorce and moves us backward."

"Unlike most women in her situation, who make considerable monetary concessions to get a divorce, in the first round Avraham had the courage not to agree to submit to her husband's dictate," says the religious legal scholar, Lifschitz. "She obtained civil rights for herself, even though in so doing she risked being refused a divorce for a lengthy period. And then her husband used the din torah trick. This was her breaking point, and she surrendered. Undoubtedly this is not standard procedure by halakhic norms as well. But instead of the court putting the husband in his place, the rabbinic court backed him up."

Avraham signed the concession agreement, obtained a bill of divorce and changed her status in the Interior Ministry. She arranged a large thanksgiving party at the Western Wall and was sure that all her travails were behind her. A month later, she appealed to the High Court of Justice on the grounds that she had signed the agreement under duress and that jurisdiction should be returned to the civil court, canceling the need for discussion in the rabbinic court.

According to Lifschitz, the fact that the agreement was coerced is indeed cause for its annulment.

But the High Court of Justice did not see it that way, and after two years of hearings decided to reject her appeal: "With all due understanding for the appellant's distressing situation, we do not have at our disposal the means to offer her aid. The appellant's representative, Attorney Mizrahi, admitted to us that the appellant's declarations before the rabbinic high court and the regional rabbinic court about her consent to a renewed hearing on financial issues according to a din torah were none other than a play on her part intended to obtain a get from the respondent deceitfully."

Lifschitz is sharply critical of the ruling. "I would have expected the High Court of Justice to back her up," he says, "but the judges criticized her in a way that was very cut off from the reality."

Avraham is not the only one who has received this treatment, he says. The High Court of Justice has turned down a series of appeals by women extorted in divorce agreements. It is common for women to make alimony claims on behalf of their children. Lifschitz says that in recent years the ruling has changed, and it has been accepted that a woman's concession does not bind the child.

"Contrary to that, in the matter of property," he says, "The courts are describing the women as manipulators, accusing them of deceit and rejecting their appeals outright. I don't accept this logic. It's a package deal. The welfare of the child is derived from economic well-being. And if the woman is left poor, the child is still affected. The court has to understand that it has an opportunity to make some improvements. The divorce laws, after all, will not change."

Unlimited power

Avraham was punished twice. In January 2000, she received a ruling from the rabbinic high court stating, "The parties are prohibited from marrying until the matter has been looked into." Three months later she received another ruling: "The divorce granted by the regional rabbinic court is being held up pending another decision by our court."

To Lubitz, this development indicates the court's aggressiveness has reached a new level: "Until recently, divorces were issued unconditionally. A divorce is a divorce. But suddenly a divorce has been turned into something not so strong and one can change his mind, if the husband didn't mean it," says Lubitz. "We currently have 13 other cases in which there have been questions about the validity of the get and statements or veiled threats to annul it. I advise women not to go to the High Court of Justice right away; they should wait. The dayanim have unlimited power. The moment you marry you become a prisoner either of your husband or of the rabbinic court."

Lubitz feels that in Avraham's case, the court delineated the limits and punished her for appealing to the High Court of Justice over the property issues.

In accordance with the divorce agreement, all the property issues were reopened for hearings in the Haifa regional rabbinic court, where the case was transferred at the request of the husband, who claimed that in Ashdod the judges were biased against him. In 2003, the supreme rabbinic court even went so far as to require the parties to grant a get l'humra - the most stringent form of divorce bill - and repeat the entire divorce ceremony on the grounds that Avraham had not acted in good faith. Nevertheless, in the end it relented and approved the civil rulings. But not in their entirety: The husband sought to cancel the interest accrued on the wife's share of the money because "interest is not something stipulated in the Torah." The supreme rabbinic court approved this, and Avraham lost several hundred thousand shekels in one fell swoop.

Avraham's strength of spirit is impressive. Outwardly, she never broke. Only once during all those years did she break down and describe the suffering her children were enduring. It happened at the last hearing. The dayanim deemed it an insult and asked her to leave the courtroom and calm down. She had to apologize to them.

Out of Avraham's whole unfortunate history, Attorney Susan Weiss, the founding director of the Center for Women's Justice, chose to cite this particular incident, which truly outraged her. "Rachel Avraham has for years been subject to the oppression of the rabbinic courts, a system that maintains its honor and preserves its power while oblivious to the absurdity of the woman's situation, the pain, oppression and violence her husband is bringing upon her, and then on top of that she has to make nice to the dayanim," she says.

According to Weiss, rabbinic court data indicates that of the 10,000 divorce cases opened in 2003, only a few were coerced.

"Based on what we see in the field, coerced divorces are granted only after 10 years," she says. Weiss wants Avraham's case to be seen for not just the injustice caused to Avraham, but in a larger context - damage to women's standing in Israel. "There was a marking of territory here between the rabbinic and the regular courts. Instead of intervening, the High Court of Justice ignored the fact that Avraham did not consent to the divorce agreement, because subjugation cannot occur by consent," she says. The absurdity is that because of the turf war between the civil and rabbinic courts, even the woman's lawyer has difficulty offering her client good advice. It's hard to predict, for example, when the rabbinic court would choose to be offended by an appeal to the High Court of Justice and harm the rights of the unfortunate client.

"In the corridors of the rabbinic courts, I met women who were in my situation but didn't have children," says Avraham. "They carried on with their lives. They had partners. What's happening is the rabbinic court is pushing women to live immorally, hindering births and creating problems with illegitimate children. It discriminates and tramples human dignity. Were it not for my children, I would be alone today. In life, there are celebrations and holidays. I married off three children. I have a little grandson. It's impossible to sit around crying. But over the years I missed out on opportunities for a relationship. I gave up dreams, studying and personal development," she says.

The loss is also financial: "I paid lawyers. In this fight I lost money that went down the drain instead of going to help my daughters with their studies and building their lives.

"Recalcitrant husbands are difficult people and bad to women," she continues. "They know how to find loopholes in Judaism and take advantage of them. And I ask: Where were the dayanim to stop them? Wasn't the whole rabbinic establishment against me, and was there anyone to stop this? There was cruelty not only on the part of my husband, but also on the part of the rabbis. For the last six years, I was married to the dayanim in the rabbinic court. They held up my divorce and prohibited me from marrying. I ask: Would they allow such a thing to be done to their daughters? Wouldn't they do everything in order to extricate their daughters?"

The rabbinic court declined to respond to Haaretz's query pending the release of the opinions behind the ruling.