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Non-Israeli ‘chained’ women can now pursue divorce in Israel

Knesset passes 3-year law giving rabbinical courts international jurisdiction and sanction power over Jewish divorce-refusers, under certain conditions

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Illustrative: A Jewish couple getting married. (Justin Oberman/Creative Commons)
Illustrative: A Jewish couple getting married. (Justin Oberman/Creative Commons)

Some non-Israeli Jewish women will now be permitted to seek a divorce in the Israeli rabbinical courts, after the Knesset on Monday passed a law extending the reach of the state-run religious legal bodies beyond the borders of the Jewish state.

The new government-sponsored law, which cleared the Knesset plenum in its second and third readings, 42-24 with two abstentions, is designed to aid agunot — “chained” women who have been refused a religious bill of divorce and cannot remarry under Jewish law.

The law will be in effect for three years only. It was brought to a final vote after a controversial passage that would have seen the law apply to civil unions as well as Jewish religious marriage ceremonies was removed from it. The softened government bill also placed limits on the jurisdiction of the Israeli religious courts in debating international cases, restricting their reach to the divorce itself, rather than other divorce-related matters, such as financial agreements and child custody.

The original proposal also extended the option to seek Israeli rabbinical legal intervention to both Jewish men and women whose spouses were refusing to grant or accept a divorce, but the final government version opted to uphold the right solely for women. The bill began as a private proposal by opposition Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, who has said it was aimed at helping Jewish women in the former Soviet Union obtain divorces, before the government adopted its own proposal.

Under Jewish law, a marriage cannot be dissolved unless the man consents to give a get. 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 and public shaming against someone the judges determine is unjustly withholding a get and turning the women into what is known as an agunah.

With little or no legal sanction power in their home countries’ rabbinical courts, proponents view the Israeli government law as a way for disenfranchised Jewish women in countries around the world, lacking legal options, to seek a religious divorce in Israel.

But critics have voiced concern over its far-reaching, and, they argue, highly problematic extension of Orthodox legal authority over — potentially — Jews across the entire world, who are embroiled in religious divorce proceedings.

Those fears were raised on Monday by opposition lawmakers, who protested the empowerment of the state religious authorities as an international tribunal on Jewish divorce.

Meretz MK Michal Rozin argued that the law would merely replicate the issues encountered by Israeli women in the state rabbinical court system, noting that Israel has a far-from-resolved the agunah problem at home. “Suddenly, the rabbinical courts are the big savior?!” she asked the plenum incredulously.

“It won’t help anyone, let’s admit the truth,” added Zionist Union MK Yael Cohen Paran, but rather aims “to expand, and expand, and expand the powers of the rabbinical courts.”

Under the terms laid out in the law, a woman may pursue a divorce case in Israel even if she is not an Israeli citizen, if one of the following terms applies: there is no rabbinical court in the vicinity of her hometown or that of the husband; the woman has submitted a request for divorce in a rabbinical court in the Diaspora, but the man has refused to appear for a summons for at least four months; or the rabbinical court abroad has ordered the husband to give the get, or religious divorce, but lacks the means to enforce the order, and so it goes unheeded for at least six months.

The Israeli law further stipulates that the man must be served in the country, and allows the rabbinical courts to levy sanctions, including jail time and orders barring him from leaving Israel. It states that couples who were married under civil unions in their home countries must first dissolve the civil marriage before seeking a religious divorce.

The law also explicitly limits the authority of the rabbinical courts in such cases to obtaining the divorce document, saying the religious bodies will not be authorized to debate other divorce-related matters or any issues that are currently being handled by both civil courts and religious courts abroad.

As a result of the amendments to the bill, some activists, including the Mavoi Satum organization, last week withdrew their opposition to the bill.

The new law comes on the heels of several high-profile cases relating to agunot, including the granting of a get by divorce-refuser Yaron Atias and two highly unusual annulments, one by a private rabbinical court not recognized by the state system, and one by a state rabbinical court.

In April, an Argentine Jewish tourist in Israel was stopped at Ben Gurion International Airport and prevented from returning to Buenos Aires, following a petition by his former wife to the rabbinical court in Israel for a religious divorce.

JTA contributed to this report.

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