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Sunday 19 August 2007

Sexist’ And ‘Dangerous’ Legislation?

Sexist' And 'Dangerous' Legislation?
Feminist groups worry about impact of new Knesset bill giving rabbinical
divorce courts greater authority. Michele Chabin - Israel Correspondent

Jerusalem — A Knesset committee has approved a proposed bill that would
give the rabbinical divorce courts greater authority in many divorce cases.

Legal experts have told The Jewish Week that the bill would offer
binding arbitration based solely on Jewish law to divorcing couples that
initiate their divorce proceedings in the rabbinical court system.

Once the arbitrator's decision is rendered, the lawyers said, it would
not be subject to review or appeal by any other authority.

Although the bill states that both spouses must agree to the
arbitration, women's rights activists fear that husbands will threaten
to withhold a get unless their wives agree to it.

The proposed bill, which has yet to be formalized, is just the latest
round in the ongoing tug of war between the High Court of Justice, which
often sides with petitioners seeking to bolster civil law, and the
Knesset, whose fervently Orthodox legislators want to expand religion's

On Sunday, representatives of more than two dozen women's organizations
from around the country protested against the bill, calling it "sexist"
and "dangerous."

Women's rights advocates say the legislation is being spearheaded by the
Orthodox Shas Party in reaction to an April 2005 High Court decision.
That ruling stated that rabbinical divorce courts couldn't overturn
rulings and agreements previously finalized in the civil court system.

While the new bill, which was unveiled in a cabinet meeting last week,
does not directly deal with civil court rulings, the feminists say, "it
is a reaction to the [court decision] and an attempt by religious
legislators to put more authority in religious hands,"says Anat Hoffman,
director of the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC),
one of the NGOs opposed to the new legislation.

Israel has no civil marriage or divorce, so all Jewish couples must
eventually go to the rabbinical courts — which are run by the chief
rabbinate — to obtain their get, or divorce decree. But husbands and
wives do have the option of initially filing for divorce in either the
civil or rabbinical court systems on matters related to alimony, child
support and the division of property — a decision that often influences
the outcome of the proceedings.

The spouse who files first gets to determine where the proceedings will
be held, and a large percentage of husbands — no absolute numbers exist
— opt for the rabbinical courts, according to Inbal Freund, director of
Mevo Satum, an organization that assists women whose husbands refuse to
give them a get.

The rabbinical courts demonstrate "a very strong bias toward men,"
Freund asserts. "[The courts'] perceptions are anachronistic, their
organizational structure is a disaster and their world views don't match
what the populations' needs are. Mevo Satum is an Orthodox women's
organization and we're not saying get rid of halacha. We care about
Judaism, but what we often see in the rabbinical courts goes against

While Freund has many complaints against the rabbinical court system,
"at least it, like the civil court system, must by law operate under the
principle of equality, not that it always does."

When it doesn't, the administrator says, a person can go to court and
file a petition.

"The new law says that arbitration will be according to Torah law and
only Torah law," Freund continues ominously. "A spouse won't be able to
go to the Supreme Court later and say the arbitrator ruled without
regard to equality. And if problems, such as child support issues or
where to send the children to school crop up later, the couple will have
no choice but to return to the rabbinical court, even though these are
civil matters."

Freund, who estimates that thousands of Israeli women are currently
unable to divorce due to their husbands' intransigence, believes that
women whose civil matters are decided in the civil courts have a much
higher chance of getting decent alimony and child support and a proper
share of their property.

Part of the problem, the feminists say, is the fact that rabbinical
court judges are fervently Orthodox. In the haredi community, women tend
to financially support their husbands while the latter sit and learn
religious texts. Often, men are not the primary wage-earners.

"There's a disconnect here. Haredi fathers don't know what it costs to
support children in a non-haredi environment," says Tsiona Koenig-Yair,
an advocate for the Israel Women's Network.

Koenig-Yair maintains that Jewish divorces by definition "stack the
deck" against the wife.

"Jewish law says that in a divorce, a man must willingly give his wife a
get. This puts the power in the man's hands and takes power away from
the woman. A woman who wants a get and whose husband won't give it says,
'OK, I'll give up my share of the apartment' or will agree to lower
alimony in order to be free."

"What happens is that the husband realizes that there's something for
him to gain from this process of withholding the get in the rabbinical
courts," Freund says. "Just today we spoke with a woman I'll call
Rachel. She left her husband because he was walking around the house
with a gun. He wouldn't give her the get and over the years she agreed
to relinquish things. Today she's left with very little. When she sued
her husband in civil court and the rabbinical court heard about it, they
told her they wouldn't continue to discuss the get until she stopped the
suit. This demand was totally illegal of course," and could be
challenged in court, she says.

Efrat Orbach, spokeswoman for the Rabbinic Administrative Courts, told
the Jerusalem Post that the bill would simply anchor in law what the
rabbinic courts have been doing for many years.

"The Supreme Court recently overturned decades of precedent during which
the rabbinic courts litigated in monetary matters connected with the
divorce process, even after the husband gave his ex the divorce writ,"
said Orbach.

Calev disagrees. "This bill represents an erosion of the religious
status quo and is therefore very dangerous."

IRAC Director Anat Hoffman worries that if the Knesset extends the
rabbinate's power, even those non-haredi Jews who currently find the
rabbinical courts tolerable and perhaps even welcoming will find them
impossible to navigate in the future.

"What will happen to secular Jews seeking a divorce? Will they say the
rabbinical courts stink? No, they'll think that the Torah stinks. I'm
petrified that after their experience they won't want to have anything
to do with Judaism, and honestly, that breaks my heart," Hoffman says.


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