Recently I had the opportunity to raise awareness on behalf of women whose husbands refused to give them a Get — a Jewish divorce. Such a refusal prevents women from remarrying and from leading a free life. In response, I received several upset messages from men asking why I am not doing more to bring attention to the issue of parental alienation, often affecting divorced men. While these may be isolated responses, they convey a broader perception in our community: you are either fighting for men’s rights or for the rights of women. We must uproot such a perspective or practice from our community.
To be clear, there is no question that there are men who use the process of Jewish divorce as a means to abuse, torture, and inflict pain and harm on the woman they once loved enough to marry. This practice causes immeasurable pain, bars women from remarrying and often relocating; in many cases of less religious individuals, it causes women to enter other relationships while still halachically married creating endless halachic problems, perpetuating conflict and animosity.
There is also no question there are many men who are alienated in one way or another from their children. These men are less likely to turn to get help and the support they need, commit suicide at high rates and are deprived of what is most precious to them—spending time raising their own children. This pain gets less communal recognition than it deserves and is too a moral and human catastrophe.
One thing Get refusal and parental alienation often have in common is the shared victims—children. Children in these situations are often ignored, used as bargaining chips, and suffer psychological trauma. If they are not old enough to be traumatized during the conflict, they will grow up and know enough to be traumatized. The events often because public enough that children’s friends and extended family will know, and those children might never have a clean slate and a chance for a normal life.
The other thing these two crises have in common is that they are as easily preventable as they are created. While each story has endless and complex interactions, emotions, and backgrounds, they are preventable. If human beings decide to rise above these conflicts at any given moment, the conflict comes to an abrupt end. Once cooler heads prevail, these crises find their end.
Yet communally speaking, the tragedy of addressing Get refusal and parental alienation is that it has become an either-or situation. Either you are supporting women dealing with a husband who won’t give a Get, or you are on the side of husbands deprived of seeing their own children. This should never be the case. The side we should all be on is the side of decency. No one should use the Get process as leverage in their marital conflicts, and no one should be deprived of seeing their own children. Like so many other aspects of social discourse in the world we live in, people feel like they have to pick a side; you are with us, or you are against us. It goes without saying this causes all cause great harm.
As a community, we have the power to apply social pressure and let members of our community know what behaviors are unacceptable to us, what crosses a red line, and what issues would make us go out of our way to support. The one issue unifying all of our causes should be decency and opposing its opposite. Be it Get refusal or child alienation, we should all be on the side of decency. We should stand by those suffering from others’ indecency and urging those who engender pain and conflict to cease such behavior and that it is unacceptable to us.
Taking an approach that embraces decency and civility while supporting the peaceful resolution and end of conflict will make our public voices more credible, stable and set better standards. In no universe should we allow the Jewish community’s communal efforts to become an “us versus them” or force anyone to choose between one cause or the other. Ultimately, it is harmony and the wellbeing of individuals in general—and children in particular—that should be our ultimate goal. “And the deed of righteousness shall be peace, and the act of righteousness [shall be] tranquility and safety until eternity. And My people shall dwell in a dwelling of peace, and in secure dwellings and in tranquil resting-places.” (Isaiah 32)