Israel Gives Rabbinical Courts Unprecedented Jurisdiction Over Diaspora Jews

Knesset passes controversial law permitting rabbinical courts to handle cases in which Jewish men refuse to divorce Jewish women – even if neither of the two is Israeli

A woman who was refused a 'get' stands in front of the Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Knesset passed a bill into law on Monday that permits Israel’s rabbinical courts to handle certain cases in which Jewish women seek to divorce their Jewish husbands, even if neither spouse is an Israeli citizen.

The controversial bill was approved as emergency legislation, to remain in effect for three years, during which the Knesset will monitor its application.

The new law sets out a series of criteria according to which the rabbinical court can hear such claims. The couple must be married according to traditional Jewish religious law, halakha, and must live in a location abroad where there is no rabbinical court that could arrange a “get,” a Jewish bill of divorce.

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Otherwise, a hearing in Israel can take place only in cases in which the husband did not respond for a period of four months to summonses by a rabbinic court outside Israel, or in cases in which a court outside of Israel ruled that a husband must give his wife a divorce, but the order could not be enforced. According to halakha, a Jewish divorce order is not valid until the husband himself grants the bill of divorce to his wife.

Up to now, Israeli law allowed Israeli rabbinical courts to handle divorces of Jews who weren’t Israeli citizens but only if one spouse had some connection to Israel, for example, having lived in the country for some time. The new law was advanced after the Conference of European Rabbis and other groups had discussions with the Israeli Rabbinical Courts Administration regarding situations in which men married according to halakha refused to grant their wives a get, rendering them “agunot,” chained women in Hebrew, who cannot remarry. The bill’s explanatory notes state that in some cases, men ignore rulings by their local rabbinical courts abroad and those courts have no authority to impose sanctions on the husbands that might persuade them to grant a get.

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MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) slammed the new law. “This bill actually gives the rabbinical court international powers. This is a new invention, an international rabbinical court for Jews. We have great difficulty with the fact that in Israel almost half a million citizens, whether by choice or because they cannot marry under Jewish law, end up getting married abroad. Let the rabbinical court solve the problems of those refused [marriage] here in Israel before it seeks to solve the problems of agunot abroad.” There is no civil marriage in Israel and marriage between Jews in Israel is governed by halakha, although civil marriages performed abroad are recognized by the Israeli Interior Ministry.

Nissan Slomiansky, the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, rejected criticism of the law, saying that it will allow Israel rabbinical courts to relieve the distress of women whose husbands have refused them a divorce, prevailing on them to do so.