Scholar: A Third of Israeli Wives Seeking Divorce Are 'Subject to Threats'

Speakers at international conference decry the plight of 'chained women,' whose husbands deny them divorces but are rarely punished by Israel's religious courts.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Israel's rabbinical courts only exercise their power to impose sanctions on recalcitrant husbands in two percent of all divorce cases, a leading legal scholar revealed at an international conference this week.

“I believes this one figure tells the whole story,” said Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, the executive director of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at the Bar-Ilan University law school.

“I disagree with those who say salvation is on the way. There is a major failure in our system. The rabbis who sit on the courts simply do not make use of the power they’ve been granted or the tools they have at their disposal.”

The law allows rabbinical court judges to impose various sanctions against intransigent husbands who render their wives agunot – literally, "chained women." These women cannot get out of their marriages either because their husbands have disappeared or because they refuse to grant their wives a get (Jewish bill of divorce). The sanctions at the courts' disposal include seizing bank accounts, suspending drivers’ licenses and even imprisonment.

Halperin-Kaddari spoke Monday at the "Second Agunah Summit: State Solutions vs. Non-State Solutions." The first such gathering, convened in New York two years ago, was initiated by New York University's Tikvah Center for Law & Jewish Civilization and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. This week’s summit included two new partners: Bar-Ilan University law school and Jerusalem's Israel Democracy Institute. Among the participants were legal scholars, women's rights advocates, rabbis and Knesset members.

Under the existing system, in which there is no civil option for divorce in Israel, every third woman seeking to divorce her husband is “subject to threats and blackmail,” explained Halperin-Kaddari, a current member and former vice president of the UN Expert Committee of CEDAW (Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women).

“When it comes to ultra-Orthodox women, and those women who are less educated," she added, "the rate goes up to one in two.”

Batya Kahana-Dror, the executive director of Mavoi Satum, a local nonprofit that advocates on behalf of agunot, said at the conference that one out of every five women seeking a divorce in Israel is refused.

“There are about 3,000-4,000 women who join the cycle each year,” she said. “The only alternative is to create a civil option. Once there is competition, the Chief Rabbinate will find the solutions that already exist within halakha (traditional religious law).”

Bar-Ilan law professor Yedidia Stern was more optimistic.

“We are beginning to see some change,” said Stern, a member of the summit's organizing committee and vice president of research at IDI. “The rabbinical judges are starting to feel the heat, there are more and more initiatives today designed to address the problem, the committee that appoints the rabbinical judges will now hopefully have women on it, and the Knesset has yet to weigh in and have its own impact. In fact, this conference couldn’t have been held 15 years ago because there wasn’t enough awareness of the problem or of the practical solutions in halakha.”

Stern said he supported the following solutions: appointing more progressive-minded members to the panel that appoints rabbinical judges, encouraging the Chief Rabbinate to promote prenuptial agreements more aggressively, passing a law enabling annulment of marriage under predetermined circumstances, and creating a legal option for civil unions.

“There are already several bills in the Knesset dealing with civil unions, but that doesn’t solve the problem for the many Israelis who still want to have a religious ceremony,” he noted.

Eli Ben-Dahan, the deputy minister of religious affairs, said that secular and traditional Israelis were to blame for the fact that the rabbinical court system is dominated by representatives of the ultra-Orthodox community. “Secular and traditional Israelis have forfeited their representation in the name of political deals,” he said on Monday.

Ben-Dahan added that the agunot problem could be solved simply by assigning more compassionate judges, who are also more representative of the general population, to the rabbinical courts.

Image from a demonstration in Jerusalem to help agunot.Credit: Pierre Turgeman

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