Online shaming campaigns usually disgust me.
But on Friday, I met the exception to the rule.
Oded Guez has been refusing to grant his wife a get, a religious bill of divorce, for nearly four years. The religious courts had had enough, and the Rabbinical High Court of Appeals in Jerusalem called upon the public to avoid all contact with this man. We are not to hire, greet, feed, nurse, or host him, nor trade with him, include him in religious activities, or learn Torah from him. In a highly unusual move, the Court specifically asked the public to spread the word.
And the public did. In what the Hebrew news site Ynet called “a court-authorized shaming campaign,” the Court’s announcement went viral on Friday, and the name “Oded Guez” popped all over social media and the Hebrew news sites. By the end of the day, it made the Forward and the Times of Israel.
This campaign may look like your typical shaming crusade, shrill and indignant. It may and does raise similar critiques. “Why do you spread unverified information,” some people asked on Facebook. “Why didn’t you ask for the other side of the story? Why should the public intervene in a private dispute?”
But this operation is anything but a normal shaming campaign.
First, it’s based on verified facts. Normal shaming campaigns are often based on misinformation and unverified accusations. But in this case, the facets were scrutinized by the court many times over. The dayanim looked through the case and listened to both sides before ruling that Guez must grant a divorce. They did so again, almost four years later, before turning to the public for help. Other courts, including Israel’s Supreme Court, went over the husband’s appeals. As anyone working in the field can tell you, the religious legal system is notoriously hesitant when it comes to declaring recalcitrant husbands “refusers” and exerting pressure over them. If these normally hesitant courts found the case to be clear cut enough to call for public pressure, I trust them.
Second, this operation has a clear, measurable objective. Shaming campaigns usually smear for shaming’s sake, ridiculing people and opinions with no end game in sight. But in this case the goal isn’t to tarnish a man’s name. Like the organizers of other high-profile public campaigns against specific get-refusers, the court clearly stated that the campaign will stop once Guez sets his wife free. Yes, the internet remembers, and yes, the husband’s hard-earned infamy will remain one google search away. But the publicity will die out once he does the right thing, as it did for Avrohom Meir Weiss and Dovid Porat. The duration of the campaign is entirely up to him.
Third, and most importantly, this campaign doesn’t compete with an existing system of law enforcement and legal prosecution like other shaming campaigns do. It doesn’t replace the courts with Facebook and the police with popular trends. It fulfills a need that other systems simply can’t address, and it’s a need that is created and facilitated by the very laws we uphold.
Jewish law grants husbands disproportionate control over divorce. Both sides must give their consent, but if the wife refuses to receive the get, the husband is de facto free to engage in other relationships. His future children wouldn’t be defined as bastards and prohibited from marrying by Jewish law. He can even ask for a special license to remarry.
The fate of an agunah, a chained wife, is completely different. Sleeping with other men will brand her as an adulteress and her future children as bastards. She will never be able to move on. She will never be able to build another Jewish family.
We live in a very different world than the one where these laws were created. Yet despite our independence and accomplishments as equal members of society, we Jewish women are still expected to enter a contract that grants men unilateral power over our freedom, when we marry according to the Jewish law.
Witholding a get in these circumstances isn’t a private act, yet another ugly, but ultimately to-be-expected divorce tactic that couples should resolve on their own. It’s an abuse of power, and it’s made possible by the very laws we uphold. It utilizes an unfair legal advantage to extort, torment and imprison a fellow human being.
People sometimes try to portray this inequality as fair: women are more likely than men to receive custody, and therefore the respective advantages balance out. But this is a flawed comparison. To get custody, the wife must convince impartial outsiders. To chain a wife, all the husband needs to do is refuse to grant her a get.
Shaming campaigns are usually reprehensible, because they create an unfair imbalance of power. They pitch the collective power of the bullying masses against a relatively helpless single victim. But in the case of get refusal, they don’t CREATE an imbalance of power: They CORRECT it. And it’s our system as Jews that creates the imbalance in the first place.
I’m not saying that all shaming campaigns are justified. I’m not even saying that all shaming of get-refusers is justified, since the facts must be checked first and the objectives should be clear. I would not support a campaign that doesn’t meet these qualifications .
But when the husbands abuse their legal power, when the wives are imprisoned by laws we follow, we the public have a role to play. Yes, divorce is a private matter. But slavery in our midst, slavery enabled by our laws, is not.