When Israel’s Religious Authorities Assisted Jewish Women in Iran

A new bill that would give Israeli rabbinical courts some jurisdiction over Diaspora Jews brings to mind a 50-year-old story from the Haaretz archives

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Synagogue in Tehran
Synagogue in TehranCredit: AFP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

“It’s a precedent that it may not be an exaggeration to call historic,” wrote Tehila Ofer in Haaretz on March 30, 1966. “A Jewish community has recognized Israel’s moral authority as a spiritual center for the Jews of the Diaspora, in the sense of ‘out of Zion shall go forth the law,’” Ofer wrote, quoting the Book of Isaiah.

In the wake of a report in Haaretz this month by Or Kashti on a government bill giving Israeli rabbinical courts the authority to punish foreign Jewish men who refuse to grant their wives a religious divorce, we found Tehila Ofer’s 1966 report — which apparently was ahead of its time — in the Haaretz archives. (The bill would allow these courts to prevent non-citizens in these circumstances from leaving Israel after a visit, or even to jail them. Such steps against foreign nationals are thought to be unprecedented.)

Tehila Ofer visited Iran in 1966 — 13 years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought down the regime of the Shah of Iran — and reported from there for Haaretz at a time when Israel’s ties to the country were excellent.

In 1966, Jewish women were highly discriminated against in Iran when it came to marital rights.

“The status of the Iranian woman is among the most inferior in the world,” Ofer wrote. “Up to now it has only been the status of the Jewish woman there that was inferior to the status of the Iranian woman in general.”

Ofer went on to explain that this was the product of the interpretation of Jewish religious law: “Since the Iranian authorities only consider the religious laws of the various communities, the Jewish woman has been among the most discriminated against.”

The Jewish women of the country became fed up with the Iranian Jewish legal interpretation of halakha, Jewish religious law, which Ofer described as “ancient Jewish traditions that discriminate against women and girls.”

A group of Iranian Jewish women decided to take the extreme step of writing to Shah Mohammad Reza Palahvi, seeking to be accorded the marital rights that Muslim women in the country had at the time.

The letter was about to be sent when Hava Cohen, the chairwoman of the council of women’s organizations in Israel, arrived in Iran as a member of a 20-person United Nations human-rights delegation.

In the course of her visit, Cohen met with Jewish women, who told her of their distress. She promised to help, and she kept her promise.

Following her visit, the director general of the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry, Dr. S.Z. Kahane, accompanied by a former chief rabbi of the Baghdad Jewish community in Iraq, paid a visit to Iran from Israel.

They met with Jewish women’s groups, with representatives of the Tehran Jewish community and with the members of the Jewish religious court there. They came to an agreement on marital rights for the Jewish women of Iran that would thereafter be binding on the Jewish community.

The agreement banned polygamy, which had been permitted to Jewish men up to then, and it also provided that a man could not divorce his wife without her consent. Prior to that, Jewish men could simply declared themselves divorced.

Contacted last week about the article, Tehila Ofer acknowledged the positive influence that Israeli religious authorities had on the marital rights of Jewish women in Iran at the time.

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