The Knesset on Monday passed in its first reading a bill that would allow Israel’s rabbinical courts to sanction non-Israeli Jewish men who refuse to grant their wives a divorce — as long as the sued party is present in Israel.
Today local courts cannot assist women who are not citizens or residents of the country.
The bill enjoys support across the political spectrum, from the centrist, secular-leaning Yesh Atid party’s MK Aliza Lavie, who has championed a version of it since 2013, to Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
However, the opposition on Monday voted against the bill, due to disagreement over a clause on Israeli couples married in a civil union. Lavie said she would work to amend the bill ahead of its second and third readings.
The legislation is an attempt to address the problem of agunot, Jewish women who are denied religious divorces by their husbands. Traditional Jewish law allows men to marry a second wife under certain circumstances, but not women, who are left “chained” to their husbands.
“We have a real problem in the former Soviet Union,” Lavie told The Times of Israel in October, in which wealthy men marry and then don’t want to divorce their wives for financial reasons.
“We’ve been trying to pass this law for four years,” she said. “There’s no opposition from the Haredim” in the Knesset, but “the Foreign Ministry opposed.”
According to Lavie, officials expressed concern that an Israeli expansion of the rabbinical courts’ authority to conduct religious divorces among non-Israelis could lead to countermeasures by other nations that would place visiting Israelis under the purview of their own family courts.
The bill would expand the Israeli rabbinical courts’ authority to “preside over a divorce suit between two Jews married according to Jewish law if there is a substantive concern that it is not possible to end the marriage under Jewish law in their last place of residence outside of Israel,” according to a draft version of the bill.
In addition to the husband being physically present in Israel, the bill would require the woman petitioning to dissolve the marriage to have already attempted to obtain a divorce, both civil and Jewish, in their country of origin.
If all those conditions are met, and the Israeli court accepts the need for a divorce, it can then ask the husband to give the wife a get, the required divorce document.
If he refuses, the bill would allow the rabbinical court to impose the raft 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.
Lavie on Monday called the bill’s passage of its first reading “a dramatic step” for agunot in the entirety of the Jewish people.
The bill has come under criticism by some as an expansion of the powers of Israel’s state rabbinical institutions.
The Center for Women’s Justice, an advocacy group that deals with religion and state issues, has said it is “against expansion of the rabbinic court’s jurisdiction in any way, whether in Israel and certainly outside of Israel. A Jewish state needs to disentangle itself from halakhic/religious expressions that deny the dignity, equality, and liberty of its citizens, not reinforce them or compound them.”
Lavie, a longtime advocate of reforming the state’s religious institutions, has acknowledged the problem, but said the bill was making the best of an imperfect situation.
“Religious marriage here in Israel has no [civil] alternative. And we’re here to find solutions,” she said. “Israel can give an answer to agunot where no one else can. This comes from a place of responsibility.”