Longest-jailed Israeli divorce-refuser freed after 19 years

Meir Gorodetsky became first man to face criminal charges over recalcitrance, is released after completing criminal sentence

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Meir Gorodetsky is released from jail on October 2, 2019 (courtesy of Center for Women's Justice)
Meir Gorodetsky is released from jail on October 2, 2019 (courtesy of Center for Women's Justice)

A man incarcerated for over 19 years for refusing to give his wife a divorce, and  who faced unprecedented criminal charges over his recalcitrance in what is believed to be the most extreme case in Israel, was freed on Wednesday.

Meir Gorodetsky has opted to remain in jail since 2000 under rabbinical court sanction rather than grant a get — a religious writ of divorce — to his wife, Tzviya, who last year secured a private annulment of their marriage in a move not recognized by the state authorities. He continued to refuse to grant the divorce papers despite a stint in solitary confinement and other jail sanctions, including the confiscation of his phylacteries.

In April, almost a year after his former wife secured the religious annulment, he became the first man in Israel’s history to face criminal charges over his refusal. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 months (including time served) on charges of violating a court order, at the prodding of the state rabbinical courts who sought to keep him behind bars, against Tzviya Gorodetsky’s wishes.

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.

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

Rabbinical courts cannot force a man to give his wife a get, 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 June 2018, a private Orthodox rabbinical court, in a dramatic ruling, annulled the Gorodetsky nuptials. 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.

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 seeking 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.

He was released on Wednesday after completing the sentence handed down in April.

In a statement on Wednesday, the rabbinical courts blamed the Center for Women’s Justice for Gorodetsky’s freedom, while stressing that Tzviya Gorodetsky remained an agunah in its eyes.

“Those who brought about the release from prison of the most serious divorce-refuser in the State of Israel is none other than the Center for Women’s Justice organization,” it said.

The rabbinical courts accused the women’s group of “taking advantage of the plight of an agunah to convince her to close her file in the rabbinical court” and of fighting the rabbinical court position on his incarceration in civil court.

As a result, “Gorodetsky is free today while still leaving his wife an agunah, and can escape and leave Israel without ever returning. This is another example of how in the context of its battles against rabbinical courts and Jewish law, a radical women’s organization is hurting agunot.”

In a statement, the Center for Women’s Justice said the Gorodetsky case “exemplifies the legal and moral failure inherent in Israeli divorce laws.”

“For over two decades, Tziya Gorodetsky tried to divorce her abusive and recalcitrant husband. Though Israel’s Rabbinic Court kept him in jail for 19 years in an attempt to pressure him to give a get, their methods failed. Even their strongest sanctions — such as a stint in solitary confinement and more recently, a historically unprecedented criminal conviction — yielded no results.

“Tzviya is only one of hundreds of women in Israel who are denied the right to divorce, violating their basic human rights to freedom and autonomy. When even the best solutions of the State Rabbinic Courts still leave women trapped with no recourse, the state’s Rabbinic Courts have lost all moral mandate to maintain their monopoly on divorce in Israel,” it said, urging “deep-seated change in Israel’s marriage and divorce laws, including civil options.”

“It is cruel and immoral for the state to forbid women from obtaining freedom from non-state entities, while at the same time refusing to offer a state-sanctioned alternative,” the organization said.

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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