Israeli men could be jailed for refusing divorce

New directive from state prosecutor authorizes criminal charges against husbands who won’t grant their wives religious divorce

State Attorney Shai Nitzan, May 24, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
State Attorney Shai Nitzan, May 24, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israeli husbands who refuse to grant a Jewish religious divorce to their wives can now be indicted and face stiff prison sentences, the Justice Ministry said Monday.

State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan issued a new directive allowing civil courts to prosecute and punish recalcitrant husbands.

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 thousands of women in legal limbo due to husbands who refuse to grant divorces.

The ministry issued an order for the civil judiciary to prosecute men who refuse to grant permission for divorce — through what is known as a “get” — after a rabbinical court orders it.

The new directive will give authority to civil courts to prosecute a husband who refuses to follow the ruling of the rabbinical judges.

There are currently 131 women in Israel whose husbands are withholding the divorce, according to the director of rabbinical courts, Shimon Yaakobi. A woman trapped in this situation is known as an “agunah” in Hebrew.

But this figure is only a tally of women for whom a religious justice has ordered the husband to accept divorce.

Aliza Gellis, head of the Yad L’isha centre that provides legal aid to women stuck in hopeless marriages, said her organization gets 6,000 requests for assistance each year.

There are also a few rare cases of men who are “chained” because their wives refuse to accept a “get,” though for a man the Jewish legal implications are not as severe.

“In the cases where rabbinic courts give an order demanding a get, we can now consider opening an investigation against the divorce-refuser and bringing him to trial for ignoring a legal order, under section 287 of the penal code,” Nitzan wrote in his new order.

Demonstrators from the Agunot organization protest outside the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem in 2011. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Demonstrators from the Agunot organization protest outside the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem in 2011. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“When a man is found guilty of the crime of ignoring a legal order by refusing to grant the get, the prosecution will sentence him to imprisonment for a real period of time,” he wrote.

Nitzan further wrote that “one who refuses to give a get impinges on the freedom and basic rights of the other, including the right to remarry, the right to have a child without it being branded a ‘mamzer.'”

A “mamzer” is a child of a married woman by a man other than her husband and he or she is very limited according to Jewish law as to who he or she can marry.

Faced with recalcitrant cases, rabbinical courts can seize driving licences, issue bans on travel abroad or block bank accounts.

Nitzan explained that criminalizing divorce refusal, as opposed to sanctions, means that the husband can be jailed even if he subsequently agrees to grant the divorce. Nitzan wrote that he hopes to deter husbands from even considering get-refusal and effectively holding their wives to ransom.

The current system grants men disproportionate power in divorce. Women who are not granted divorces are often forced to relinquish their child custody rights or alimony payments to convince husbands to accede.

Yaakobi welcomed the move. “This is a real improvement in the battle against get-refusers,” he said. “Get-refusers and anyone who helps them will know that from now they will have no respite until the wife is freed.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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