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How Israel’s New Divorce Law Makes A Bad Situation Worse

For the past 4 years, Member of Knesset Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid and Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of Shas have been promoting a law that would allow rabbinic courts to take “international” jurisdiction over cases of agunot — women unable to remarry because their husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce (a “get”). The Attorney General ok’d the latest draft and it’s up for Knesset approval. The Times of Israel (TOI) reported that the bill would allow rabbinic courts “to impose the slew of sanctions against the husband that it is already empowered to place on Israeli citizens, including fines, frozen assets, and in rare cases even short-term imprisonment.” When challenged that the law was problematic, Lavie told TOI, “[W]e’re here to find solutions” and “Israel can give an answer to agunot where no one else can. This comes from a place of responsibility.”

Lavie is kidding herself. The proposed law does not come from a place of answers and responsibility but from a place of frustration and cunning. It comes from the frustration of traditional feminist activists, like Lavie, who want to do something for agunot. And it comes from the cunning of those on the religious right who, like Azoulay, will do anything to make it look like rabbinic courts can really do something; and anything that expands the courts’ theocratic reach and bureaucratic size.

So here’s the gospel truth: the new law does not supply a solution for agunot. Israeli rabbinic courts have no solutions for agunot. Rabbinic courts have no power to declare a marriage over. Only her husband can free her. Even if a woman were to prove domestic violence, abandonment, and adultery, and even if a rabbinic court were to impose a “slew of sanctions,” a wife remains married until her husband agrees to a get. The court incarcerated Tzvia Goredetsky’s husband 17 years ago, put him into solitary, denied him visitation rights, and took away the mattress he sleeps on. She is still married to him.

In addition to providing no solution, the proposed law is hypocritical and allows for a double standard. Israeli courts rarely impose sanctions on Israeli men, but they are quick to do so against foreigners. Bound by the din torah (Jewish law) rule that a man must give a get of his own free will and that a “forced” divorce is void, Israeli rabbis prefer to procrastinate, mediate, and cajole local couples into divorce rather than order sanctions. There is no time for such delicate tactics with visiting tourists. With visitors, the rabbis need to operate swiftly. On the basis of the pleadings of an aggrieved spouse alone, the court will issue an ex-parte (one-sided) restraining order that prevents the accused tourist/spouse from leaving Israel. This forces the accused into an Israeli rabbinic court where, more often than not, he or she will agree to a get in order to return to work and family. At this point, all of Israel pats itself on the back, ignoring the obvious “forcedness” of the situation and the fact that Israeli agunot remain languishing. It’s a great PR moment. I know that this is how it works because rabbinic courts operate this way today — with no legal jurisdiction, even before the law has been passed.

It should be needless to say that a state is not acting “responsibly” when it restrains a person’s right to travel, without due process of law, in order to coerce a religious act. A democracy needs to tread softly on the civil liberties of its citizens, let alone its guests. History has taught us that a state cannot deny neo-Nazis the right to march, even though they offend the sensibilities of the local Jewish population. It cannot incarcerate a mother indefinitely for preventing her ex-husband from seeing their child, even though it is in the child’s best interest to see the father. It cannot even arrest a suspected jihadist without probable cause.

Similarly, a state cannot restrain the right of tourists to travel just because he or she (allegedly) has not agreed to a religious divorce, however abusive that refusal is of an unfair religious privilege.

So here’s my (obviously tongue-in-cheek) Modest Proposal. It’s based on the now discovered “solution“ to the problem of agunot, ie: ex-parte restraining orders that prevent tourists from leaving the country they are visiting. I suggest that Israel enter into a multi-national agunah treaty with all the other nations in the world. The treaty will provide that all nations have the right, and indeed the obligation, to unilaterally, ex-parte, and on the basis of one party‘s pleading, temporarily restrain the travel of all Jewish tourists who are suspected of being get refusers — including, of course, Israeli tourists. If a tourist happens to give a get under the hurried circumstances of an ex-parte restraining order in a foreign county, the get will not be considered invalid or “forced.”

Just to make sure that all the details of the get are properly executed in all foreign countries, we Israeli tax payers will, at our expense, fly our rabbinic experts to any place in the world to oversee the details of an ensuing religious divorce ceremony. If the tourist thinks that their travel is being wrongfully restrained because they are not really get refusers, or for any other reason, they will be entitled to a full, fair din torah trial in the country that she or he is visiting. We Israeli taxpayers will ensure this, too, by underwriting all expenses necessary for our expert rabbis to set up international religious tribunals anywhere.

Thus, whether in Istanbul or Nairobi, Italy or New York, our expert Israeli tribunals will be there. In addition to overseeing a full din torah divorce trial, our experts will accept testimony regarding the suspected extra-marital sexual activity of wives, just like we do here in Israel. This will make sure that no Jewish divorcee from any country is ever allowed to marry her lover or her ex-husband; and that any child born to a such a woman and her lover is properly blacklisted as a mamzer on an international-database monitored by the Israeli Rabbinate.

Thus, the purity of the Jewish people will be safeguarded. Everywhere.

Or, alternatively, we Israelis will fly the temporarily restrained Jewish tourist from whatever country of origin, back to Israel, again at our expense, to have his or her din torah divorce case tried in the State of Israel.

After all, and as we all know, “Israel can give an answer to agunot where no one else can.”

As I said, this is obviously tongue in cheek. But it’s satire that expressed my worry about the new law, as well as any expansion of the powers of the theocratic arm of the Jewish state which, sadly, is not interested at all in protecting the civil liberties of anybody, anywhere.

Susan Weiss is an activist who spent her entire adult career in Israel working to free agunot. She runs the Center for Women’s Justice.




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