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Jewish women suffer under Israel’s theocracy

Thousands of citizens are trapped in unwanted, unsafe marriages due to a biased rabbinical court. They deserve better
Demonstrators holding signs on Aguna Day in protest of women trapped in marriages. The sign on the right reads "Enough extortion on the road to a get," referring to a Jewish divorce document. Picture courtesy of Mavoi Satum.
Demonstrators holding signs on Aguna Day in protest of women trapped in marriages. The sign on the right reads "Enough extortion on the road to a get," referring to a Jewish divorce document. Picture courtesy of Mavoi Satum.

Last Monday, the Pew Research Center published a report classifying Israel as one of the 20 most religiously restrictive countries in the world, in the company of Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. While this might strike some as shocking, it doesn’t surprise me at all.

In Israel, a majority of the citizens don’t identify as religious, and yet every marriage, divorce, and Jewish conversion are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate. This means that every divorce must take place in accordance with the Ultra- Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. Anyone who is familiar with this interpretation of Jewish law knows that it is extremely patriarchal, heavily favoring the rights and desires of men over those of women. This is also true in the realm of divorce. According to Jewish law, a divorce is only legal if a man freely and willingly grants his wife a bill of divorce. Until a man gives his wife a bill of divorce, she has no choice but to remain married to him.

If you think that this sounds like a serious violation of basic civil freedoms, you’re right. Not only is the lack of civil marriage an infringement on the freedom of Jewish Israelis to express their religion as they choose but more specifically the monopoly of the rabbinical courts on divorces in Israel represents an abuse of the freedoms of women. In Israel today 1 in 5 women involved in divorce cases are agunot (women whose husbands are unable to give a writ of divorce because they are “missing,” either physically or mentally) or mesoravot get (women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorces).

This summer I am interning in an organization called Mavoi Satum, an organization that provides legal and psychological support to women who are mesoravot get and agunot. In the time that I’ve worked with Mavoi Satum, I have heard horrifying stories of women trapped in abusive relationships by an unsympathetic rabbinical court.

One woman, physically and emotionally abused by her husband, was told by the rabbinical court to book a hotel for the weekend in order to reconcile with her husband. Even though she had a restraining order against her husband and a social worker offered to testify to the abuse she had faced at the hands of her husband, the rabbinical judges refused to acknowledge that there was a legitimate reason for divorce and closed the case. Only after five and a half years, and a lengthy legal battle did she succeed in getting a divorce.

Another story is that of a woman trapped in a marriage to a man who after a head injury only has the mental capabilities of a three year old. When the rabbis ask him if he wants to give his wife a divorce he keeps changing his mind, sometimes saying no and sometimes saying yes. The traditional methods used to convince a husband to give his wife a get are impossible to use in this situation because he is disabled. The rabbinical court can’t send him to prison, or confiscate his driver’s license because he is mentally the equivalent of a child,  so the case is stalled. She cannot get a divorce and the rabbinical court cannot help her.

I could go on and on.

Clearly, even when there is no miscarriage of justice, divorce under Jewish law as interpreted in the rabbinic court is inherently biased against women. Israel is supposed to be a developed democratic country, and yet thousands of Israeli women are trapped with no recourse in unwanted marriages. These women deserve more. They deserve to live fully, free to make their own choices in every sphere of their lives. The status quo cannot continue, too many people are suffering. It is imperative that civil marriage and divorce be introduced in Israel. It is unacceptable that a state built for Jews is the only democratic country in the world where Jews don’t have religious freedom.

About the Author
Malka Himelhoch is a rising Junior at Princeton University and is interning this summer at Mavoi Satum.
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