It Is High Time to Close Israel's Rabbinical Courts

In the run-up to the next election, a moment before we draft 'everyone,' it's high time to close the rabbinical courts and abolish them.

While the "political system" is boiling over whether or not to draft the ultra-Orthodox, a woman has been thrown in jail for refusing to divorce her husband. This is the second time the rabbinical court has sent her to jail during the 16 years in which she has refused the divorce; the last time, it said it was doing so in the name of gender equality.

Only there is no gender equality in Israel, especially when it comes to marriage. A man whose wife refuses to divorce him can receive permission from the rabbis to marry a second wife, while a woman whose husband refuses to divorce her cannot live with, marry or have children with another man.

The law allowing people who refuse to grant a divorce to be sent to jail was passed in 1995 as a way of dealing with men who refuse to divorce their wives. Very few women refuse to divorce their husbands. But according to Bar-Ilan University's Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women and the advocacy organization Mavoi Satum, one fifth of all divorcees are refused a divorce by their husband at least temporarily, and about 10,000 Israeli women have remained in this situation for many years. Yet since 2005, only 12 men have been jailed for refusing to grant a divorce.

The husband of the woman who has just been jailed has already received a permit from the rabbis to take a second wife, but he claims the fact that he isn't divorced is nevertheless important, because it could entitle his first wife to rights in his pension and his estate. The woman, however, is refusing to grant the divorce precisely because she claims she isn't receiving her due share of their common property. She says the property was divided on the basis of inadmissible evidence. And since the hearing was held in the rabbinical court rather than a family court, that could definitely be true. Incidentally, the woman is secular.

Men who condition a divorce on getting a larger part of the joint property than they are supposed to is a daily occurrence at the rabbinical courts, yet this has never been deemed grounds for jailing them. On the contrary, the dayanim (rabbinical judges ) collaborate in pressuring women to waive their share in order to obtain the divorce. Yet when a woman insists on her right to get her share of the property, she not only doesn't get the divorce, but now, Thus, the tools prescribed by law in an effort to compensate for women's inferior position in the rabbinical courts have instead merely increased the courts' power, and are now actually working against women. Of course, there are only men in the rabbinical courts. All the dayanim are men and only they get to decide.

But even regardless of women's rights, think how warped and severe the entire set-up is: Men and women are being locked up in jail to get them to divorce. In other words, we begin with a law that violates basic human rights by enabling a man to deprive the woman he marries of the fundamental freedom to marry and have children. Yet instead of correcting this distortion by abolishing the law that harms these basic human rights, we enact a law that worsens the violation of human rights by enabling people to be sent to jail, instead of simply giving both parties a divorce.

According to attorney Susan Weiss of the Center for Women's Justice - who for years has opposed the idea of using imprisonment as a sanction in divorce cases - when the civil authorities are in charge of regulating a couple's relationship, if either party doesn't want the marriage, it is considered an irretrievable breakdown, certainly after a period of de facto separation. The court then puts an end to the marriage and takes care of all the accompanying arrangements.

About a decade ago, I heard Yaakov Neeman, today the justice minister, explaining that religious legislation is bad for the Jewish religion. Where's the logic, he asked, in having a person observe the Sabbath just because he's afraid of being sent to jail? But his opinion has evidently changed, considering that since then, he has more than once promoted legislation to expand the rabbinical courts' powers.

That's a shame, because there's a lot of logic in what he said back then and there's no reason on earth why civil matters such as marriage, divorce, money, custody and child support should be decided by nonegalitarian religious courts that are committed not to Israeli law, but to religious law. So in the run-up to the next election, a moment before we draft "everyone," it's high time to close the rabbinical courts and abolish them.

Read this artilce in Hebrew