Hundreds of Jewish Divorces in Israel Delayed Despite Rabbinical Judges Granting Them

More than 2,000 divorce cases before rabbinical courts were closed before the court ruled on them, Haaretz has learned: 'The court made it very difficult for me, tripping me up with every request'

File photo: A rabbinical court in Jerusalem, August 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Hundreds of divorce litigants before Israeli rabbinical courts were never granted a “get” – a formal Jewish bill of divorce – despite rulings ordering it, and in more than 2,000 divorce cases before rabbinical courts, the cases were closed before the court ruled on them, Haaretz has learned.

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In the case of one woman, who will be identified here as S., the rabbinical court stated: “The parties have been living separately for about five years and their relations are as contentious as they could be, to the extent that there doesn’t appear to be a prospect of reconciling them,” adding: “The husband’s opposition to the divorce was unjustifiable and not understandable.” The court made that pronouncement in 1992, but it took 25 years for S. to actually be divorced.

“The court made it very difficult for me, tripping me up with every request,” she told Haaretz. In reference to her husband, she recounted: “I asked the court to force him to give me a get but the judges didn’t agree, so he wasn’t forced to pay a price for his refusal,” she said. “I couldn’t cope. I gave up on the court.”

There is no civil marriage and divorce in Israel, in keeping with a system that was put in place when Israel was part of the Ottoman Empire, which grants autonomy to religious communities on matters involving marriage and divorce. Jews seeking a divorce are therefore under the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts applying Orthodox religious law – halakha – which technically provides that a man must grant a get to his wife of his free will, although the courts have on occasion imposed sanctions against a husband who refuses, including imprisonment.

Over the years, S.’s case was ultimately closed, but last year, she managed to convince the court to reopen it and to order her husband to grant his wife a get. “I am a religious woman and for 30 years, my life hasn’t moved forward,” she said. “I couldn’t deal with a number of fronts at the same time, so I gave up on myself.”

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Despite her situation, the state did not officially consider S. a woman who was refused a divorce by her husband. Rabbinical courts have recognized about 120 women as being in this situation, but data obtained by Haaretz shows that between 2013 and 2017, there have been roughly 300 other cases in which the rabbinical court has recommended or ordered that husbands grant a bill of divorce to their wives but in which the files were closed without a formal divorce being finalized.

“From the standpoint of the court, these women are not considered as having been refused a divorce,” said Batya Kahana-Dror, a lawyer with Mavoi Satum, an organization that helps women who have been denied a get by their husbands. There are also cases in which men have been refused.

“A large number of the cases were shelved because one of the parties gave up on the court proceedings, such as S., whom we represented and managed to obtain a get for after 30 years – or their money to pay a lawyer ran out. That means that their lives are on hold as a practical matter. Instead of the court dealing with the matter, it simply closes the files. They don’t appear in the statistics, and then we are ultimately told that there almost isn’t anyone refused a divorce,” Kahana-Dror said.

A senior religious court official told Haaretz: “There are files that have been closed with the agreement of the parties after the plaintiff simply doesn’t cooperate with the court and doesn’t come to the hearings,” After Haaretz inquired, the rabbinical courts launched an effort to determine how many unofficial cases of people refused a divorce there are, the source said.

Between 2013 and 2017, there were 2,267 cases of men or women who sought a get but whose cases were closed before a decision was made. D. almost fell into the first category.

She had been the victim of domestic violence at the hands of her husband, who was in jail on an extended sentence. “The court sent me for meetings with my husband in jail to try to see if there was a chance at reconciliation,” she told Haaretz, explaining that it was only his imprisonment that enabled her to escape his abuse. At the meetings in prison he continued to threaten her, she recounted, for which he was given another year in jail. D. said the rabbinical court almost closed her divorce case because there was no action taken on it for about six months while she sought a new lawyer. With the help of Mavoi Satum, it was discovered that her case was about to be closed. “They hadn’t even informed us that they were closing it,” D. said. The case is pending.

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In addition, it should be noted, Mavoi Satum has reported 101 cases between 2013 and 2017 in which the rabbinical courts have refused to grant a divorce, including one woman, who will be identified here as N. and who is separated from her husband but has been denied a divorce by the court even though the court saw no prospect for reconciliation. She has since appealed the case with the assistance of Mavoi Satum.

The Rabbinical Court administration said in response: “In the past five years, there have been a total of 101 divorce cases in which the complaint has been rejected, meaning if there are 11,000 divorce complaints [a year] on average, 99.82% of them have not been rejected and continue to be dealt with. With regard to the other cases, in which cases have been closed without a ruling, that has generally because the plaintiff has abandoned the divorce complaint.”

As noted above, the court has begun an investigation to determine the number of cases in which parties have in practice been deprived of a divorce ruling but who do not appear in the court statistics. With regard to the case of N., who told Haaretz that she was refused a divorce by the court, the rabbinical court administration said it is unable to disclose the details of her case due to confidentiality restrictions, but said efforts on appeal to get the parties to come to a consent agreement on a divorce were opposed by Kahana-Dror of Mavoi Satum, who insisted that the husband be ordered to divorce his wife. The case has been transferred to a new rabbinical court panel, the court administration said.