In first, Israeli man indicted for refusing his wife a divorce

Rabbinical court says move intended to further pressure husband, who has been in prison for over 17 years, to release 'chained' spouse

View from the halls of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court's division for agunot, on September 17, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flsh90)

Prosecutors filed a criminal indictment Wednesday against a man who has refused to grant his wife a divorce for over 20 years and has already sat in prison for 17 years due his recalcitrance.

The case is one of the longest-running incidents of an agunah, or “chained woman” — one who has been unable to complete divorce proceedings because her husband refuses to giver her a religious bill of divorce, known in Hebrew as a get.

In papers filed at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, the state sought to bring charges of a criminal offense against the man that could result in a criminal record.

The development was coordinated by the rabbinical court, together with the Justice Ministry, the state prosecution and police.

Rabbinical courts have the power to imprison those who refuse to give a divorce as a way of pressuring them to comply, but the measure is not a criminal proceeding and there is no accompanying criminal record.

The man has opted to remain in prison since 2000 rather than grant the get, without which his wife cannot remarry under both Jewish law and state law in Israel, where personal status issues are handled by the rabbinate.

In June a private rabbinical court annulled the woman’s marriage — ostensibly giving the woman, who is religious, a Jewish legal mandate to remarry — but the ruling has not been recognized by the rabbinate or state authorities.

In 2016 State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan instructed that criminal charges could be brought against those who refuse a divorce, under which they would be treated as a criminal offender who harms public interests and values.

The woman, who was not named in the media, told the Hebrew-language Walla website that the indictment was brought against her wishes.

“They asked me at the police if I am interested in criminal proceedings,” she said. “I told them no. If after 17 years the rabbinate didn’t find a solution to break my chains, how does it help for him to continue sitting in prison? The police and the rabbinic court did it all behind my back.”

According to the report, the woman recently asked that her request for a divorce be withdrawn — a move that could grant her husband immediate release from the rabbinate-ordered prison term. The Center for Women’s Justice organization told the Times of Israel that she wants to move on with her life now that she received the annulment from the private rabbinical court.

The Center for Women’s Justice organization accused the rabbinical court of only trying to give the impression of taking action to cover its failures in dealing with other cases of agunah women and to avoid recognizing the ruling of the private court.

The woman in question had sought, in vain, to close her divorce file in the state-run rabbinical courts for months — a move that would automatically result in the release of the incarcerated man, the organization said. Filing charges against the recalcitrant husband was a ploy by the religious authorities to avoid recognizing the private annulment and uphold the woman’s agunah status, it added.

“Filing an indictment against get refusers is an important social statement that it is an improper act, except that here the rabbinic court uniquely uses this practice for one reason: to preserve its image and to blur the fact that it itself is not resolving serious problems for agunah women,” it said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this report inaccurately stated that the woman was still seeking a religious bill of divorce from her ex-husband and therefore sought his release to encourage him to give the get freely. It also erroneously stated that the Center for Women’s Justice had welcomed the move.

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