Israeli lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow the country’s rabbinical courts to impose sanctions on non-Israeli Jewish men who refuse to grant their wives a divorce.
The bill enjoys support across the political spectrum, from the centrist, secular-leaning Yesh Atid party’s MK Aliza Lavie, who has championed a version of it since 2013, to Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
The legislation is an attempt to address the problem of agunot, Jewish women who are denied religious divorces by their husbands. Traditional Jewish law allows the men to remarry under certain circumstances, but not the women, who are left “chained” to their husbands.
“We have a real problem in the former Soviet Union,” Lavie told The Times of Israel on Monday, in which wealthy men marry and then don’t want to divorce their wives for financial reasons.
“We’ve been trying to pass this law for four years,” she said. “There’s no opposition from the Haredim” in the Knesset, but “the Foreign Ministry opposed.”
According to Lavie, officials expressed concern that an Israeli expansion of the rabbinical courts’ authority to conduct religious divorces among non-Israelis could lead to countermeasures by other nations that would place visiting Israelis under the purview of their family courts.
The bill would expand the Israeli rabbinical courts’ authority to “preside over a divorce suit between two Jews married according to Jewish law if there is a substantive concern that it is not possible to end the marriage under Jewish law in their last place of residence outside of Israel,” according to a draft version of the bill.
It requires that the person being sued – usually the recalcitrant husband – be physically present in Israel. Additionally, the person petitioning to dissolve the marriage must have already attempted to obtain a divorce, both civil and Jewish, in their country of origin.
If all those conditions are met, and the Israeli court accepts the need for a divorce, it can then ask the husband to give the wife a get, the required divorce document.
If he refuses, the new bill allows the rabbinical court to impose the slew of sanctions against the husband it is already empowered to place on Israeli citizens, including fines, frozen assets, and in rare cases even short-term imprisonment.
The bill is already drawing criticism as an expansion of the powers of Israel’s state rabbinical institutions.
In a statement, the Center for Women’s Justice, an advocacy group that deals with religion and state issues, said it was “against expansion of the rabbinic court’s jurisdiction in any way, whether in Israel and certainly outside of Israel. A Jewish state needs to disentangle itself from halakhic/religious expressions that deny the dignity, equality, and liberty of its citizens, not reinforce them or compound them.”
Lavie, a longtime advocate of reforming the state’s religious institutions, acknowledged the problem, but said the bill was making the best of an imperfect situation.
“Religious marriage here in Israel has no [civil] alternative. And we’re here to find solutions,” she said. “Israel can give an answer to agunot where no one else can. This comes from a place of responsibility.”