Divorce in Israel: Men get the final word

Cancelled conference spurs debate over laws set by Israeli rabbinate.

It's been nearly three years since Ariela Dadon began trying to divorce her abusive husband. But she can't gain her freedom or the right to remarry because her estranged husband has refused to grant her a get, a Jewish divorce writ that can only be given by a man to his wife – never the other way around.

"We and others who are denied a get are like prisoners who can't get a pardon," says Ms. Dadon, who is raising two small children while she puts herself through graduate school in accounting.

She also makes endless visits to religious courts in a bid to get the judges to force her husband's hand. The catch: He won't do so unless she forfeits child support, among other demands.

Groups such as Mevoi Satum, a nongovernmental organization whose name means "Dead End," says there are thousands of women here like Dadon. While rights groups have lobbied for it, neither civil marriage nor divorce exist in Israel.

The Israeli rabbinate acknowledges only that there are between a few dozen to up to 200 cases at any given time. But the Rabbinate – which holds sway over the religious life of Israel's Jewish majority, governing everything from birth to burial, was to hold a groundbreaking conference here Tuesday to address the problem. Last week, however, it cancelled the event – which had been tailored to ultra-Orthodox guidelines of a closed session, no women, and no media. The move was widely seen as caving to pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders, though no reason was given.

Even more liberal-minded Orthodox rabbis slammed the move. Shlomo Riskin, an influential US-born rabbi who founded the Efrat settlement in the West Bank, called the rabbinate's decision to cancel the conference "a tragedy."

The reignited dispute over how to approach the problem of Israel's agunot – which means "anchored" – comes at a time of increased struggle between modern rights and ancient values, increasingly at stake in Israel's attempt to maintain a state that is both Jewish and democratic.

Every night for the past week, for example, there have been riots in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods over the state's decision to allow a Gay Pride Parade here on Friday. Some groups have threatened violence if the event takes place in the Holy City.

In the early days of the Israeli state, Orthodox religious leaders were entrusted with decisions on religious matters. Founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion made a compromise to win religious political support and argued that the deal would empower what was then seen as a endangered religious minority. Today, the ultra-Orthodox community is growing in influence and numbers, due to much higher birthrates in religious families.

Shula Kadourie, a mother of six who recently got her divorce after a four-year wait, says that the way she was treated in the process damaged her faith. It also made her wonder if she weren't living in more of a theocracy than a democracy, like many others in the Middle East. In court visits, she was regularly told to sit and be quiet; the judge was interested in hearing her husband's side of the story only.

Although the conference of rabbinical decisionmakers was called off, a counterconference – planned several weeks ago in response to the decision to exclude women from the room – was planned by Mevoi Satum. The group's director, Rachel Azaria, said Tuesday that the problem was that religious authorities do not use the tools at their disposal to force recalcitrant husbands – many of whom have gone on to live with another woman – to release their wives. Halakha, or Jewish religious law, makes it clear that it is the husband's place to give his wife a get, but various forms of pressure may be placed upon him if he is deemed unreasonable.

"Israel is the only country in the world where there wasn't supposed to be an issue of [Jewish] women stuck waiting for a get," Ms. Azaria says.

Since there is no separation here between synagogue and state, state religious authorities can resort to all kinds of tactics to get men who have no intention to reconcile to agree to a divorce. These vary from freezing bank accounts, revoking driver's licenses, and throwing the men in prison. They can be stopped at the airport.

But religious authorities, advocates say, often prefer outmoded techniques that work only in the most traditional communities. These include putting social pressure on the husband and ostracizing him from group prayer or study.

In practice, Azaria says, these long stretches of time in which the woman waits amount to a sort of financial blackmail, systematically weakening the economic position of women. Authorities will suggest that the woman who is keen to get out of the marriage give up some of her rights to request alimony or child support. Women of means are expected to pay to get out the marriage, or are left to wait years in the bureaucracy.

"It's always worthwhile for the man to wait. It's always, 'What are you willing to give up?' '' Azaria explains. "If she has money, it means paying, or giving up her claim to joint property, or giving up her right to child support."

Dadon, who had her last court appointment three days ago, is still waiting. "To give up my demand for alimony, fine, but I won't give up on behalf of my kids, on getting them the support they need," she says. In some court visits, judges have asked her for evidence. She included police reports after several instances of physical abuse.

Although these are take into consideration, they don't replace the need for her husband to agree "of his own will" to grant the divorce. "I feel that the court is just legitimizing him and his attempt to push me to give up everything," she says. She wrote a long letter to the court to explain her situation, but it was ignored.

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