In Unprecedented Move, Israel Indicts Husband for Refusing to Grant Wife Jewish Divorce

The man, who is now 61, has been in jail since 2000 for failing to grant his wife a 'get,' the bill of divorce required by Jewish religious law to finalize a divorce

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

Jerusalem police charged a man Wednesday with violating a legal order after he has refused to grant his wife a Jewish bill of divorce, known as a "get," for almost 20 years.

The man has been in prison since 2000 for his refusal, but with criminal charges filed, his case is the first in Israel in which a husband has been indicted for refusing to grant his wife a get.

According to the indictment, the 61-year-old defendant, who can only be identified publicly as M., and his wife, S., were married 26 years ago. In 1998, the two began divorce proceedings in the course of which M. refused to grant his wife a get.

Based on Ottoman law that predates Israel's establishment, there is no civil marriage in Israel. Marriage and divorce for each of the country's religious communities is governed by religious law, meaning that Jewish divorce is governed by halakha (Orthodox Jewish religious law), which requires that a husband grant his wife a get in order for their divorce to be valid.

As a result of his refusal, M. was imprisoned every several weeks for a period of time in the hope that he would agree to divorce his wife. Since 2000, on orders of a rabbinical court, he has remained in prison, including periods in solitary confinement.

Despite having been transferred to prisons where conditions are harsh and despite the periods in solitary confinement, he has persisted in refusing to grant the get to his wife, which also has meant that she has been unable to remarry.

In 2016, personal items were confiscated from him, and he was also ordered confined under the same conditions as murderers and sex offenders. At one hearing, the rabbinical court issued a request to the Knesset asking that existing law be amended to permit the use of "physical measures" under "special circumstances" against men who refuse their wives a bill of divorce.

The criminal charges that M. is now facing allege that he has violated a legal order to protect another person, in this case his wife, an offense that carries a maximum of four years in prison.

The rabbinate has called M. one of the country's "toughest get refusers.” The decision to charge him was taken jointly by the Rabbinical Courts Administration, the Justice Ministry, the State Prosecutor's Office and the police.