Refused a divorce for 17 years, hunger-striker takes fight to Knesset

Outside parliament, Zvia Gordetsky implores lawmakers to adopt bill that would allow ‘chained women’ to annul marriages even when the husband refuses

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

In May 2017, Zvia Gordetsky launched a hunger strike outside the Knesset after being refused a religious bill of divorce for 17 years. (Courtesy)
In May 2017, Zvia Gordetsky launched a hunger strike outside the Knesset after being refused a religious bill of divorce for 17 years. (Courtesy)

Outside of Israel’s parliament, an Israeli woman who has been denied a religious bill of divorce for 17 years entered the sixth day of a hunger strike on Monday, imploring lawmakers to find a way to free her.

“I’ve reached a point where I can’t wait any longer. I’ve waited too long,” said Ukraine-born Zvia Gordetsky, now 53, whose husband has opted to sit in jail since 2000, rather than give her a divorce.

She was hoping that lawmakers could help her by paving the way to retroactively annul her nuptials, but that was shelved for the next three months on Sunday by ministers.

Gordetsky first asked for a divorce “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, 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.

Imprisoned ever since, including a stint in solitary confinement, Gordetsky’s husband recently had his phylacteries confiscated, under a new law aimed at further pressuring incarcerated recalcitrant husbands with religious sanctions.

Last Wednesday, Gordetsky parked herself outside of the Knesset in protest of her agunah or “chained” status, under which she may not remarry in Israel, where religious courts have final say on matters of personal status.

The rabbinate, which she described as supportive of her case, imposed all the sanctions at its disposal, she said. “But it didn’t resolve the problem.”

Zvia Gordetsky launches a hunger strike outside the Knesset after being refused a religious bill of divorce for 17 years (Courtesy)
Zvia Gordetsky launches a hunger strike outside the Knesset after being refused a religious bill of divorce for 17 years (Courtesy)


Speaking in accented Hebrew and surrounded by signs calling for her release from her marriage, the composed Gordetsky, religiously attired with a light blue band over her blond hair, sat at a table with several supporters.

Lawmakers have not come out to express their solidarity, according to an activist accompanying her.

Gordetsky was pinning her hopes on a bill, introduced by Zionist Union MK Yael Cohen-Paran that would pave the way to annulling marriages using a mechanism known as hafka’at kiddushin, supported by a minority Jewish legal opinion.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation, a key panel that lends legislation coalition support, on Sunday postponed the vote by three months. According to a spokesperson for Cohen-Paran, the opposition lawmaker will likely bring the bill to a plenum debate on Wednesday.

However, the bill — endorsed by more than a dozen opposition lawmakers, but no coalition MKs — is highly unlikely to advance, given the opposition by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers to legislation that alters the religious status quo, under which “personal status” issues of marriage and divorce are handled exclusively by the rabbinical courts.

Zehava Fisher, an activist accompanying Gordetsky, argued that the law would not compromise the rabbinical courts’ standing, as it would be conditioned on a religious ruling from the rabbinical judges to the husbands ordering them to divorce their wives. If they refuse, the law would then go into effect, expropriating assets in the amount detailed on the marriage contract.

According to Fisher, “there are rabbinical judges who support it. At least six. One openly — Rabbi [Eliyahu] Abergel — and five secretly. But they exist.”

“This law could be passed by the British parliament. Because it isn’t a religious law,” she added, maintaining that while the Knesset would carry out the legal mechanism of separating her from her husband’s assets and debt, it would remain up to the rabbinical courts to decide whether the woman may then remarry.

Won’t budge ‘until a solution is found’

Every six months for 17 years, Gordetsky’s husband is summoned for a hearing by the rabbinical courts to demand he issue the divorce. According to the agunah, he repeats that the authorities “won’t break me.”

For 17 years, she sought out rabbis for Jewish legal loopholes. “Their final answer was that the man gives the get,” she said.

The mother of four, who moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union in 1990 and got married at 19, was adamant on Monday that she would stay put and refrain from eating until “a solution is found.”

“My sons, whom I raised with dedication, serve in the army, protecting the State of Israel,” she said. “I want the State of Israel to protect me.”

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