Court to Women: Want a Get? Waive Your Damages Suit

"I feel trapped. It's as if I am fluttering in a net, I kick and kick, and cannot get out. Everyone is telling me: 'Live your life. Blow them off. What do you need this get [religious divorce] for anyway?' I have four children and I am a woman in waiting. I lead my life from one deliberation to another. Until I get this document, the get, I will have no peace to go on with my life." The woman behind this statement, S., has been waiting for her husband to agree to a get for seven years.

Most of the women who are not given a get are religious - and for them halakhic (Jewish legal) and social considerations prevent them from living with a partner outside marriage. As such, they are vulnerable to extortion by their husbands: for the sake of the desired get they surrender any claims to alimony and property.

However, S., who is a registered nurse, is not religious and on the face of it faces no such constraints. Nonetheless, she does not feel her situation is any different from that of religious women in similar circumstances. She says that extending her marriage by force is a fatal blow to her personal liberty.

In April 2006, S. filed a claim for NIS 1 million in damages against her husband in the Kfar Sava family court. She is demanding compensation for years of violence, for losing her liberty during the years aginut [the years her husband has refused her get], for being unable to marry and have more children.

Initially it seemed that the suit did the trick. About a month ago, during deliberations at the district court in Netanya, the husband for the first time suggested that he would be willing to grant the get. But, to her dismay, the dayan [rabbinate court judge] blocked the get.

"The dayan asked him 'Do you really want to divorce?'" S. recalls. "My husband began stuttering, saying that I had filed a damages suit. That same moment the dayan said: 'If she filed a damages suit then there is no get.' Then he announced that my case was closed."

Last week the Center for Women's Justice, which represents S. in her damages suit, filed a petition with the High Court of Justice, asking that the authority of the rabbinical court to demand that women recall damages claims filed against husbands refusing to grant a get be revoked as a precondition for the religious court to deliberate divorce cases.

In recent years the Center for Women's Justice filed more than 10 damages claims on behalf of women who were refused get. In 2004 Judge Menahem HaCohen, of the Jerusalem family court, for the first time ruled in favor of an ultra-Orthodox woman in her claim for NIS 400,000. Her husband refused her get for eight years.

This was a precedent-setting case and to date the only one in which the plaintiff was awarded damages. In some cases the matter does not reach trial because the husband agrees to grant a get. Other cases are still ongoing and there are instances in which the woman gives in to the pressure of the rabbinical court and withdraws the suit.

Attorney Susan Weiss, who heads the organization, says the rabbinical courts stop dealing with the cases of women who filed damages suits. "They are placing unacceptable pressure on these women," she says.

"We file damages claims in terrible cases, ones that show no movement in the rabbinical court. It is not simple. In theory we must exhaust the legal process before reaching the High Court, but this case [of S.] is special," Weiss says.

Weiss maintains this case reflects a deeper concern of the rabbinical courts that their exclusive authority to rule on matters of marriage and divorce will be undermined when a woman appeals to the civil courts.