Refused Divorce for 17 Years, Jewish Woman Goes on Hunger Strike in Israel

'I need a solution,' says woman protesting outside Knesset because husband has refused to grant her Jewish divorce, as Israel stalls on legislation

Zvia Gordetsky’s husband has refused to grant her a divorce for the last 17 years
Emil Salman

The Israeli government’s legislative arm decided on Sunday to postpone discussion of a bill that would allow the state to annul the marriages of Jewish women who can’t obtain a divorce.

The bill, sponsored by MK Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union), is considered highly unlikely to pass, as the Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s decision to shelve any discussion of it for another three months demonstrated.

But it was a blow to one woman who has been conducting a hunger strike outside the Knesset since last Wednesday. Zvia Gordetsky’s husband has refused to grant her a divorce for the last 17 years. For 16 of those years, he has been jailed by order of a rabbinical court because of his refusal to divorce her, but to no avail. Gordetsky, now 53, remains his wife.

Under Jewish law, divorce requires the consent of both husband and wife, which enables either side to thwart a divorce. Cohen Paran’s bill, which was co-sponsored by a large contingent of opposition MKs, is based on a proposal by Prof. Berachyahu Lifshitz, an expert in Jewish law at Hebrew University.

The bill would effectively allow the state to annul any marriage in which one party has refused to divorce the other for more than a year, by exploiting the fact that under Jewish law, marriage is a contract which must be sealed by a financial payment – usually the wedding ring that the groom gives the bride. The bill would allow the state to retroactively confiscate the money used to buy the ring. That would ostensibly invalidate the marriage contract, since it means the payment would have been made with money that didn’t actually belong to the groom, and would hence be fraudulent.

Demonstration on behalf of agunot, or women 'chained in marriage,' in Jerusalem last year.
Alex Levac

Controversial solution

Nevertheless, this particular solution is controversial even among rabbis and women’s organizations that believe Jewish law does offer solutions to the problem of women whose husbands refuse to divorce them. Consequently, the bill is considered a longshot to pass, since the religious parties in the governing coalition will presumably demand that the coalition oppose it.

Gordetsky said she plans to continue her hunger strike. “I need a solution,” she said. “I’ve waited 17 years, that’s long enough.”

Though this isn’t her first hunger strike, it is her first opposite the Knesset, where she attracts more media attention and visits by supporters. Those supporters have included several opposition MKs, she said, but no female MKs from coalition parties or MKs from religious parties.

“I’d like the religious and ultra-Orthodox MKs to come here and explain to me why they oppose this law,” Gordetsky added. “Why should it bother them if I get my freedom? This law doesn’t undermine the rabbinate, because the rabbinical court itself said the man must grant me a divorce.”

Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, who heads Bar-Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status and is also Gordetsky’s attorney, said this case was a clear example of one in which the rabbinical courts “ought to use even the most exceptional measures” available in Jewish law to secure the divorce.