The Jewish Women Who Face Systemic Abuse

Four women protesting in Kikar Tzion, Jerusalem this week . Their sign says: "Sarvnanut Get is Violence!" (courtesy, Orit Lahav)

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Today is the day when the international community stands together in solidarity against all kinds of violence against women.

I want to use this opportunity to talk about a very particular type of violence against women, one specific to the Jewish community. According to the commonly accepted interpretation of Jewish Law, a divorce is only legal if a man freely and willingly grants his wife a bill of divorce (get) and she accepts that bill. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for a man to withhold a get from his wife for years. While women have the power to refuse to accept a get, men are able to move on to new relationships and father children within these relationships without significant halachic repercussions.

Withholding a bill of divorce (sarvanut get) is violence. When a man withholds a get  from his wife, he is exerting his power over her, he is reminding her that he and he alone controls her future. If a man does not grant his wife a get, she cannot remarry, she cannot have children with another man because such children would be mamzerim. Until the moment when a man decides to give his wife a get, she is trapped, powerless and unable to move forward with her life.

This summer I interned at Mavoi Satum, a Jerusalem based organization that provides legal representation and psychological support to women whose husbands are withholding gets. In my time at Mavoi Satum I heard upsetting and infuriating stories. When one man finally granted his wife a get this summer after more than three years of withholding it, he made a point of going up to his wife after the ritual was complete and telling her to remember that he was the one who set her free, not the rabbis and not her lawyer.

Clearly, men are aware of the power that they wield over their wives. They are reminded constantly by the many Rabbinical Judges who only agree to oversee the ritual of divorce once they are assured that the husband is willingly and freely giving his wife a get.

And yet, the Rabbinical Courts who have the exclusive responsibility for the adjudication of divorces in Israel don’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation. Only the Rabbinical Judges are empowered to find and implement solutions to the problem of agunot and mesoravot get in Israel but tragically they don’t seem to be interested in doing so.

Every year the Rabbinical Courts release a report which includes data on the divorce cases from the past year. According to the rabbinical courts by the end of 2016 there were only 809 people who were legally classified by the rabbinical courts as a mesorav or mesorevet get.

In response to questions about the severity of the problem of sarvanut get in Israel, the Rabbinical Courts often point to this statistic as proof that it isn’t a serious issue in Israel. Additionally the Rabbinical Courts are fond of pointing to the gender breakdown of the 809 mesoravei get, and claiming that of these 809 people there are more mesoravei get (men whose wives refuse to accept gets) than mesoravot get (women whose husbands refuse to grant them gets). It seems that the Rabbinical Courts believe that by demonizing women, and claiming that there are more women refusing to accept gets than men refusing to give their wives gets, they are able to excuse their complicity in the horrific problem of mesoravot get.

It’s striking that the Rabbinical Courts use the data in this way because based on the number of mesoravot get that Mavoi Satum has helped in the past 20 years it seems highly improbable that there could be only 809 mesoravei get at the end of 2016. Indeed, reports published by Bar Ilan’s Rackman Center have found that between 1 in 3 and 1 in 5 women in the process of getting a divorce in Israel today is a mesorevet get. It’s therefore impossible to imagine that, including the men whose wives won’t accept a get, there are only 809 mesoravei get in the entire state of Israel.

Indeed, the data published by the rabbinical courts themselves disprove the claim that there are only 809 people denied a divorce in Israel. The numbers published by the rabbinical court are not even close to the true number of cases where one of the parties refuses to agree to a divorce. There are thousands of cases where the couples haven’t yet succeeded in getting a divorce but the court hasn’t yet made a ruling formally calling one of the parties a mesorav/mesorevet  get and therefore these cases are not factored into the official number publicized by the rabbinical courts. The court only formally labels people a mesorav/mesorevet get when they become convinced that the individual who wants to get divorced has the right to do so.

In 2018, according to the official report of the rabbinical courts, 4,102 people opened cases suing their spouses for divorce.  Only 575 of those cases concluded in divorce, meaning that by the end of 2018 3,527 couples who wanted to get divorced still hadn’t succeeded.  In 2017 3,876 divorce cases were opened, but 2,244 of those couples still hadn’t gotten divorced at the end of 2018. In 2016 5,308 couples opened divorce cases and 2,111 of those couples still hadn’t gotten divorced at the end of 2018. These numbers prove that there are thousands of people who want a divorce have not succeeded in getting one. Clearly, according to the rabbinical court’s own data, there are more than 809 people who are mesoravei/mesoravot get.

By publicizing data that minimizes the scope of the problem of mesoravot get in Israel, the Rabbinical Courts are in effect misleading the citizens of Israel, which is itself a form of violence. The Rabbinical Courts have absolute control over Jewish marriage and divorce which means that they hold a unique power over Israeli citizens. As individuals, Israeli men and women depend on the Rabbinical Courts to be just, fair, and equitable. By misusing their power and publicizing data which demonizes women, the Rabbinical Courts are putting Israeli women at greater risk, embolding abusive men, and making it impossible for Israeli women to depend upon the Rabbinical Courts to be true arbiters of justice.

On this day when the international community stands together against violence against women, I urge Jews around the world to think critically about what we can do to prevent get withholding and how to encourage the Rabbinical Courts in Israel to use their power to solve the problem of mesoravot get instead of using their influence to conceal it.

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