In first, Israel jails divorce-refuser on criminal charges

Meir Gorodetsky has been behind bars for nearly 20 years under rabbinical court sanction; now, he’ll be held as a criminal, against the wishes of his former wife

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

A private rabbinical court dissolves the marriage of Tzviya Gorodetsky in June 2018 (Courtesy of the Center for Women's Justice/Rachel Stomel)
A private rabbinical court dissolves the marriage of Tzviya Gorodetsky in June 2018 (Courtesy of the Center for Women's Justice/Rachel Stomel)

For the first time in its history, Israel will jail a divorce-refuser on criminal charges, at the prodding of the state-run rabbinical courts, and against the wishes of his former wife, who secured a private religious annulment of their marriage nearly a year ago.

The Jerusalem Magistrates’ Court ruled Tuesday that Meir Gorodetsky will be incarcerated for 15 months on charges of violating a court order, over his refusal — spanning over two decades — to abide by state rabbinical court orders to grant his wife a divorce. He was convicted on the charge earlier this month.

Under millennia-old Jewish law, only the husband may formally dissolve a marriage. In Israel, where all divorces are subject to religious law, this norm has left hundreds of women in legal limbo due to husbands who refuse to grant divorces.

Rabbinical courts cannot force a man to give his wife a get, or writ of divorce, but in Israel they can impose harsh sanctions, including the rare jail sentence without charge and public shaming of a man whom judges determine is unjustly withholding a get and turning the woman into what is known as an agunah, or “chained” woman.

In what is believed to be the most extreme case in the country’s history, Gorodetsky has opted to remain in jail since 2000 under rabbinical court sanction rather than grant a get to his wife, Tzviya.

In June 2018, a private Orthodox rabbinical court, in a dramatic ruling, annulled the Gorodetsky nuptials, in a move not recognized by the state authorities.

Satisfied with the religious annulment after a 23-year battle, Tzviya Gorodetsky then sought to close her case file at the rabbinate, a move that would automatically trigger the release of her former husband from jail, according to the Center for Women’s Justice organization, which has been representing her and had convened the private rabbinical panel, headed by Rabbi Daniel Sperber, that led to the dissolving of her marriage.

Tzviya Gorodetsky no longer wants Meir Gorodetsky to remain imprisoned, CWJ has said, highlighting the failure of this method of punishment in extracting a divorce in the case. Gorodetsky has continued to refuse to grant the divorce papers despite a stint in solitary confinement and other jail sanctions, including the confiscation of his phylacteries.

But eager to keep the notorious get-refuser behind bars — and firm in its insistence that the couple are married in the eyes of the state despite the private court’s dissolution of their marriage — the rabbinical court took the unprecedented step of independently turning to the civil courts to seek criminal charges against Gorodetsky. Thus the rabbinical court set into motion what would become the first application of a 2016 state attorney directive that allows for the prosecution of divorce-refusers on the grounds that they violate a court order in disobeying the state rabbinical court.

The rabbinical courts on Tuesday said the ruling marked a “historic day,” but said they would appeal for a longer sentence than the 15 months handed down by the Jerusalem court.

In a statement, CWJ on Tuesday accused the state and rabbinical courts of cementing the agunah status of Tzviya Gorodetsky as “punishment” for her pursuit of private annulment outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.

“It is the cruelest of ironies: For the first time in history, the State criminally convicted a man for get refusal, all for the purpose of keeping a woman chained. This is a declaration that the woman, Tzviyah, is still married, as a punishment for seeking help from a private Orthodox rabbinic court instead of confining herself to the monopoly of the state’s rabbinic courts,” it said.

“Anyone who cares about women’s rights should be livid,” it added. “Anyone who believes in the rule of law and in civil liberties should be alarmed that the police, state attorney, and criminal court have all been actively complicit in convicting a man with a crime and incarcerating him for the sole purpose of maintaining the rabbinic court’s monopoly on religious services.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel in 2017, during a hunger strike outside Israel’s Knesset over her position, Tzviya Gorodetsky said she first asked for a divorce in 1995 “because of a tragic incident of domestic violence” in which she lost a baby days before she was due to give birth. After hearing her account and the testimony of her husband, in 2000 a rabbinical court ordered him to give her a divorce within 30 days or face a prison sentence, she said.

He showed up to the hearing with a bag packed for jail, she said.

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