A recent film, “GETT: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” tells the fictional story of Viviane, a Jewish Israeli woman  tormented by her embittered husband. The couple are estranged, and living apart. The marriage is truly over in every sense. But according to Jewish law, which governs the decree of divorce in Israel, the husband is free to inflict anguish on Viviane by refusing to give her a ‘gett’ – his agreement to end the marriage.

American reviews of “GETT follow a typical pattern. First, they praise the film itself, both as a narrative, and as an activists call for reform. Then, they wring hands about the grim state of women’s rights in Israel:

…it’s the system that’s perverse, in the way that it treats wives not like people, but property. – Washington Post

For all intents and purposes, Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz), a wife and mother, is chattel. No rights to speak of, no voice or choice in her desire to end her long-dead marriage. Her only hope rests in the hands of rigid rabbis and a resistant husband. – LA Times

These appear to be well-intentioned, if over-heated, reactions to the social issues raised in “GETT”. Of course, not everyone is well-meaning.   

In Iran, women must dress in robes and not venture out. In Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive. And, in Israel, married women are not allowed to seek relief from a broken marriage. – The Berkeley Daily Planet

Charming. Let’s just say that not everyone approachs this issue in good faith.

But even those who do approach the issue in good faith could reasonably be confused. After all, the impression created by the “GETT” phenomenon – the film itself, and the ensuing American media coverage – is directly contradicted by multiple journalistic accounts, legal experts, and official statistics.

Contrary to the suggestions of the Washington Post and the LA Times, family (civil) courts in Israel have jurisdiction over most of the divorce process in Israel. Women in fact do have a voice in these courts – about half of all judges in Israel are women.

Israeli wives can choose to have civil courts handle the decisions over child-custody, maintenance, and the division of marital property. Unless the wife chooses to have the rabbinical court handle child custody decisions, the civil courts decide child custody, and their precedents heavily favor mothers. If the wife files first in civil court, then civil courts can also make the decisions about alimony and child support. Even before final maintenance decisions are made, the courts hold husbands responsible for financially supporting their wives and children during the divorce process. Civil courts will also divide the property held in common in the marriage, including property held by the husband prior to the marriage, one year after the first filing, even if there is no official divorce decree by rabbinical courts. 

The only thing the civil courts can’t do is stamp the final decree of ‘divorce.’ That does require the assent of the husband. 

But the civil courts have taken steps to ensure that withholding the gett is a self-destructive strategy. Wives have successfully sued their husbands in civil courts for big awards to force the husband to give the gett. Monetary judgements against gett-refusing husbands have reached hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

And the civil courts aren’t limited to financial penalties to force compliance from gett-refusing husbands.

These sanctions can include revoking certain rights — withholding a passport, canceling a driver’s license, suspending professional permits — as well as prison terms of up to 10 years, and, in extreme cases, solitary confinement

Do some sadists still use the gett to torment their estranged wives? Undoubtably. It does appear that some more reform is in order.

The makers of “GETT” explicitly support that reform agenda. To dramatize the need for reform, they did what story-tellers do. They excluded a lot of information that would complicate their story. And they used an impressionistic style to enhance the drama faced by their lead characters.

While there are problems around gender equality and marriage rights in Israel, it is not clear that these problems fall outside the range of what you might expect from a liberal democracy grappling with interwoven conservative traditions.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading the reviews of this film. Instead if your knowledge of divorce Israeli-style were limited to the film “GETT” and the U.S. media reaction, you might come away with the impression that Israel is a strange land where women hold a near-slave status. More like the repressive nations of the Middle East, and less like the flawed striving democracies of the West.

One can’t blame advocates of gender equality in Israel for focusing on the bad in defense of a good cause. The problem comes when those selective and dramatized representations are received by a largely ignorant American media, and passed along as the full, balanced story. If Israel had fewer enemies around the world, then the story-spinning of Israeli reform advocates, and the ignorances of the foreign media (and publics) might seem less harmful. But given the current state of affairs, it sends a chill down one’s spine to see the “GETT” narrative accepted as factual and complete.