Jailed divorce-refusers stand to lose religious benefits

New law allows rabbinical courts to sanction inmates, barring them from religious studies program and forcing them to wear regular uniforms

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Police outside the Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramla, which has a special Torah study jail program, on February 15, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Police outside the Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramla, which has a special Torah study jail program, on February 15, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Orthodox men jailed for refusing to grant their wives a divorce may now find themselves stripped of religious privileges in prison, according to a new law approved by the Knesset on Wednesday.

According to the law, proposed by Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, rabbinical courts can sanction such inmates, forcing them to wear prison uniforms instead of their own clothes and barring them from the special Torah study program in Israeli jails. The rabbinical courts may also deny them special kosher food with a “mehadrin” certification — the most stringent level of kosher supervision — and forced to suffice with the regular kosher food option, but only on the condition that basic items in the regular meal are mehadrin certified.

For inmates in solitary confinement, the rabbinical courts are granted the authority to withhold writing or reading materials, apart from a prayer book, and to see to it that they are prevented from accessing any forms of communication.

The sanctions are designed to pressure the men to grant their wives a divorce, or get, without which the women may not remarry in Israel, though it remains unclear how rigorously the rabbinical courts will implement the new penalties.

The religious jail tracks, such as the one in Ma’asiyahu Prison that hosted formerly jailed ex-president Moshe Katsav, are seen as a cushy option for inmates.

“The High Rabbinical Court has expressed its opposition to these benefits and ruled that there is no justification for get refusers (even religious ones) to serve in the Torah-observant programs in prison, and that there is no need to go out of one’s way for a get refuser in preparing food with a mehadrin certification, at a time when they are not fulfilling their basic halachic [Jewish legal] obligation to divorce their wives,” the text of the legislation said.

“This bill is part of a large fight on the matter of get refusal; it didn’t start today, and unfortunately, it also won’t end today,” said Moalem-Refaeli on Wednesday.

“A man who ‘chains’ his wife and is unwilling to accept the ruling of the [religious] judges to stop abusing her is not really a man for whom Jewish law and religious way of life is important. He is trampling on the basic Jewish principle of ‘love your brother as yourself,’ simply to embitter the life of his wife,” she said. “Therefore, he is not worthy of enjoying the slew of privileges granted to religious prisoners.”

Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli speaks during a vote on the so-called Regulation Bill on December 7, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli speaks during a vote on the so-called Regulation Bill on December 7, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Forty-four lawmakers voted in favor of the bill in its second and third readings, passing it into law, with six opposed and one abstention.

The abstention by Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern saw him spar with female lawmakers from his party and the Zionist Union in the Knesset plenum, saying the law did not address the root of the problem. Those supporting the law “give a sort of backing to a destructive system that abuses women, and if you support this proposal, which may solve the problem of one woman, you are simultaneously burying hundreds of women denied a divorce, who are pleading at every moment that their husbands be jailed, and the rabbinical courts do not exercise the option,” he charged.

“Our sisters are crying out to us, those who have been imprisoned for years,” retorted Zionist Union MK Revital Swid. “They are the living dead, they don’t get married, don’t have children, they have no family, no reason to wake up in the morning. They are before our eyes. Every woman knows what she would feel if a man would chain her. I’m not sure that MK Stern can understand, even for a moment, what this woman feels. So don’t preach to us, we who are sitting here and have fought for years for agunot [‘chained’ women].”

Citing freedom of religion, Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg said on Twitter that she had voted against the law.

“Even a good goal does not justify all means,” she wrote. “Freedom of religion and conscience is a human right that a democratic state cannot deny, even when it denies freedom.”

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

As part of their existing authority, the rabbinical courts may imprison recalcitrant husbands, though critics and some women’s groups maintain the courts rarely do so. Rabbinical courts can seize driver’s licenses, issue bans on travel abroad and block bank accounts.

According to Zandberg, there are currently only five get refusers serving jail terms.

In November, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan issued a new directive allowing civil courts to prosecute and punish recalcitrant husbands. The Justice Ministry issued an order for the civil judiciary to prosecute men who refuse to grant permission for divorce after a rabbinical court orders it. That directive will give authority to civil courts to prosecute a husband who refuses to follow the ruling of the rabbinical judges.

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