Wives Lead Rise in Refusals to Grant Religious Jewish Divorce in Israel

Those refusing to grant the bill of divorce – or 'get' in Hebrew – have been sentenced to as little as a day in jail and as long as 14 years

File Photo: A couple receives a get certificate from the Jerusalem rabbinical court.
Taly Mayer

As more and more Jewish Israelis seek to divorce, more of them are also refusing to grant their spouses a “get,” the formal bill of divorce that Jewish religious law requires to make the divorce official.

Unlike other areas of the law, marriage and divorce in Israel are under the jurisdiction of the religious courts of the community to which the spouses marriage belong. In its annual report, the rabbinical court administration, which administers divorce proceedings for Jewish Israelis and applies Orthodox Jewish law, or halakha, states that there has been an increase over the past five years in the number of cases in which a spouse has refused to consent to a get. In 2016, there were 285 cases of refusal, despite the standing court orders requiring consent to a religious bill of divorce.

About 11,000 Jewish bills of divorce are granted on an annual basis in Israel. For years, the rabbinical courts have maintained that the number of men and of women who are refused a get is about even. This is borne out by figures released by the rabbinical court administration yesterday, showing that last year there were 142 men and 143 women who refused to cooperate in the issuance of the bill of divorce.

The reason that consent becomes an issue in the rabbinical courts is that Orthodox Jewish law requires that the get be issued based on the free consent of both parties to a marriage. In many instances, this requirement is exploited by one spouse in an effort to extract better divorce terms. The rabbinical court administration reported that it has 809 open files from the last five years that are deemed to involve refusal to grant a divorce. Of these cases, 382 involve men refusing to give their consent and 427 involve women who have refused.

Nevertheless, there is a procedure in the rabbinical courts that in some respects gets around a woman’s refusal and only benefits men whose wives refuse to consent to a bill of divorce. The practice under such circumstances involves giving the husband permission to marry a second wife when the first is refusing a divorce or if the first wife is seriously ill. Between 2012 and 2017, permission has been granted in 125 cases.

“The data show that the number of cases in which a man was given permission to marry a second wife is very small, involving just over 10 cases a year compared to about 11,000 gets that are issue every year,” noted Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi, the director of the rabbinical court system.

Spouses who refuse to grant a get run the risk of being sentenced to prison. The shortest period served by a defendant before consenting to a divorce was one day. The longest period recorded was about 14 years, which is being served by a man who remains in jail to this day for his refusal. No women have been jailed over their refusal.

“Although viewed over a course of years, the percentage of refusal to grant a get is only about 1.5 percent of all of those divorcing, every day of delay in arranging a get for someone refused one is one day too long and is improper,” Yaakobi said.

Representatives of organizations that provide assistance to women denied a get were critical of the court administration’s report. “The figures that were published are misleading the public because they don’t tell the real story of refusal to grant a get,” said Pnina Omer, the director of one such group, Yad La’isha. The court only deems a woman to have been refused a bill of divorce if a court order has been issued requiring it, Omer said, adding that many cases remain pending for years before such an order is issued.

For her part, Batya Kahana-Dror, who heads, Mavoi Satum, which provides assistance to women denied a bill of divorce, noted that a woman who is denied a bill for divorce cannot remarry or bring children into the world, and remains “a prisoner of her husband,” in contrast to men, who have greater flexibility if they are refused a get.