New Israeli bill would punish Jewish foreigners with ‘chained’ wives

Move comes at behest of European rabbis looking to punish husbands who refuse to grant divorces; ‘Today among Jews in Europe, everyone has relatives in Israel’

Illustrative: A Jewish couple stand underneath the 'chuppah' during their wedding in a synagogue in Paris, France, July 21, 2013. (Serge Attal/Flash90/via JTA)
Illustrative: A Jewish couple stand underneath the 'chuppah' during their wedding in a synagogue in Paris, France, July 21, 2013. (Serge Attal/Flash90/via JTA)

The Knesset passed in a first reading draft legislation that would expose to legal action in Israel Jewish non-citizens who refuse to grant their wives a divorce.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, on Wednesday celebrated as “extremely significant” the Knesset’s passing last week in a first reading of an amendment to the law on the rabbinical courts. If it passes a third reading, the bill would extend the Israeli religious courts’ jurisdiction to any Jew who is found to be withholding unjustly his consent to a divorce.

Led by the government and opposition lawmakers, the legislation could lead to the fining and imprisonment of Jewish tourists while in Israel and is part of an escalation in judiciary practices against recalcitrant husbands, which is occurring amid growing criticism over gender discrimination in Orthodox Judaism.

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

In Orthodox Judaism, a marriage cannot be undone unless the man consents to giving the woman a “get” — the Hebrew word for a divorce document. Rabbinical courts, which in Israel function as family courts, cannot force a man to give his wife a get but they can impose harsh punishments, including jail time, on any party the judges determine are unjustly withholding a get and turning women into what is known in Judaism as agunot, or “chained” women.

But these powers in rabbinical courts run by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate are currently limited to Israeli citizens, said Goldschmidt. “The thought behind extending the jurisdiction to non-Israelis is that in today’s world, Jews, and especially observant ones, are tied to Israel. If they want to avoid legal trouble there, they will unchain their wives,” Goldschmidt, a prominent rabbi in Moscow who has lobbied in Israel for the new legislation, told JTA.

Pinchas Goldschmidt. (Flash90)

The proposed measure is particularly effective when it comes to Jews living in Europe, which has more than a million Jews, Goldschmidt suggested.

“Today among Jews in Europe, everyone has relatives in Israel, or they’re thinking they might be moving there or forced to move there,” Goldschmidt added. “So this threat of a problem may make a lot of reluctant husbands free their wives.”

In 2017, Europe provided Israel with more than half of its immigrants under the law of return for Jews. Immigration from France and Ukraine and several other European countries is increasing amid growing expressions of anti-Semitism.

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