Taking the Extortion Out of Divorce, if the Rabbi Permits It

A true revolution is afoot in the Knesset. If approved, religious men will have less of an upper hand in divorce proceedings.

Under the proposal, the civil and rabbinical courts will be able to divide property between the couple before they divorce. As a result, the economic situation of women who are requesting a divorce and their children will improve considerably.

Approved by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday for its second and third readings, the law will end a significant part of extortion by men who refuse to give their wives a divorce.

The procedure for approving the proposed law is in a very advanced stage and only one more deliberation in the Knesset (for the second and third readings) is needed in order to pass it.

However, because the ultra-Orthodox parties see this proposed law as damaging to the status of the rabbinical courts, it is quite possible it will never see that debate. MK Otniel Schneller of Kadima, for example, believes the attempt to pass the law as currently formulated will bring about a coalition crisis with Shas. As everyone knows, Kadima cannot afford this.

The subject of the proposed laws is a procedure called "balancing of assets" - the division of property that has been accumulated during a couple's marriage. Currently, the law stipulates that the balancing of assets will occur only after a divorce is granted. The result is that the man, whose sole consent is required under Jewish law, can force his wife to give him most of the property in order to get the divorce she wants.

Under the formulation approved by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the family court or rabbinical court can balance assets prior to divorce in several cases: one year after the suit for divorce or the request for the division of property is filed; when the man and the woman have been living apart for at least nine months; in a situation where there is proven violence.

A particularly innovative stipulation in the amendment is that the court, when it comes to apportion the property, will be able to take into consideration "career assets" such as professional degrees acquired during the marriage, reputation, pension funds and more.

Dozens of Knesset members are behind the law, but it has been led (in various versions) by a number of religious Knesset members: Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Menachem Ben-Sasson (Kadima), National Religious Party chairman Zevulun Orlev, Schneller and Meimad chairman Rabbi Michael Melchior. While the secular community tends to arrive at financial agreements outside the rabbinical courts, the national religious legislators know their constituency needs the rabbinical courts.

Ben-Sasson says the amendment's aim is "to disassociate entirely the money issue from divorce," thereby denying the man the ability to extort his wife. Schneller has supported the committee's proposal, but said he believes "there is no chance it will pass during this term. If it passes, there will be a coalition crisis with Shas. I have no reason to suppose that anyone in the coalition wants a crisis on the basis of this law."

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee has also deliberated on a proposal sent to the committee on behalf of Chief Rabbi and President of the High Rabbinical Court of Appeals Shlomo Amar. Under this proposal, only the rabbinical courts would be able to balance assets. The court would be obligated to do so within 14 months of the request's filing.

If the court doesn't follow through, parties could appeal to the president of the High Rabbinical Court, who could transfer the case to a special rabbinical court. The committee rejected this proposal, which would have meant huge delays and procrastination.

Schneller has been conducting prolonged negotiations with Amar in aims of getting an agreed-upon law passed. He is proposing a compromise which would transfer authority to the rabbinical court. The court would be obligated to balance assets within a year of the request. If it failed, the case would be sent automatically to a special bench of the High Rabbinical Court.

Schneller is convinced the bill will ensure property divisions within a year for 99 percent of cases, as no bench will want to disgrace itself by losing control of the case. He says Amar has agreed to this proposal in the past and Schneller is convinced he will be able to obtain the rabbi's approval again. According to him, the compromise will be very beneficial to religious women who are obligated to litigate in rabbinical courts.

Only if Sheetrit permits it

"The cat is out of the bag," said Knesset Interior and Environment Committee Chairman MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor) in response to an announcement made on behalf of Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit. Attorney Daniel Solomon, legal advisor to the Population Administration, announced that Sheetrit (Kadima) is opposed to one of the most important reforms the committee has been advancing - transferring the authority to revoke citizenship obtained fraudulently from the auspices of the interior minister to the administrative courts.

Revoking citizenship is a more severe punishment than several years in prison. It removes nearly all of a person's rights: to remain in the country, to work here, to health insurance, to drive and more.

Sometimes, citizenship revocation cases are brought before the committee many years after the person has built a life in Israel. When an individual's citizenship is revoked, sometimes the citizenship of his children, who were born in Israel, is also revoked. In recent years, several dozen such cases have been recorded annually.

The current procedure stipulates that if the Interior Ministry suspects an individual has obtained citizenship fraudulently, the case will be brought before the committee. The committee makes recommendations to the interior minister, who makes the final decision

The law as originally proposed by MK Gilad Erdan (Likud) did not deal at all with revoking citizenship obtained fraudulently. Erdan wanted to transfer the authority to revoke citizenship because of disloyalty to the state, a condition that applies mainly to Arab Israelis, from the interior minister to the court. His proposal was made because the attorney general does not allow the interior minister to implement the procedure; Erdan wanted to create a procedure that would work.

The Arab Knesset members believe the proposed law is aimed, above all, at revoking the citizenship of Balad leader Azmi Bishara. Pines-Paz, a former interior minister, added to the procedure for revoking citizenship obtained by registering false details. Pines-Paz, who has revoked the citizenship of several individuals, said he believes it is appropriate to transfer such authority to the courts. Sheetrit thinks otherwise.

"The Interior Minister has asked me to inform you," said attorney Solomon to the committee two weeks ago, "that if the proposal is passed in this version, he will not support it." When asked what the minister would approve, Solomon replied that Sheetrit is interested in one that relates only to disloyalty to the state.

Solomon argues that the detailed procedure in the proposed law for revoking citizenship obtained fraudulently - a committee, a ministerial decision, an application to a court, the possibility to appeal - would take two years. He proposes anchoring in law the current procedure, which is handled by an advisory committee. "There is no justification for taking it to court," he said.