Susan Weiss
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‘Let him rot in jail’ is not the answer to divorce refusers

The theocratic power that could jail a man for 19 years for 'insolence' is the same power keeping women chained to marriage

Right before Rosh Hashana, the highest of holy days of the Jewish New Year, the State of Israel released Meir Gorodetsky from prison. He had been sitting in jail, sometimes in solitary, sometimes sleeping on the floor, never with canteen privileges, for 19+ years. His crime: stupidity and insolence surrounding his refusal to grant his wife a religious divorce (a get). The reason he sat for so long and in such harsh conditions: arrogant fundamentalism of the theocratic arm of the state; persistent short-sightedness of many of the women’s not-for-profit organizations; and the lily-livered, abandonment of values by the secular arm of the state, in particular its Supreme Court.

The theocratic arm of the state, the rabbinic courts of Israel and its reigning rabbi-popes, wanted Meir to stay in jail. Until his death, if necessary. Meir is their poster-boy of how the theocracy thinks it should manage the problem of husbands who refuse to give their wives a get — throw them in jail, take away their liberty, just as they take away their wives’ freedom. Even better yet, flog them, as the Talmud suggests. It’s just too bad, so goes the theocratic logic, that the secular arm cramps their halakhic style.

This, of course, is all wrong and a gross example of transference. Instead of blaming themselves and how they do or don’t do justice, rabbinic judges blame bad husbands. But they’re not the primary reason for this quagmire of injustice; they’re just mean guys taking advantage of fundamentalist, patriarchal marriage and divorce rules that give them the legalized power to ultimately decide if their wives remain married to them, or not. These rules should not be on the books of a democratic state in the first instance. And if they are, they should be marginalized by those in charge of enforcing them and made to comport with democratic and modern justice standards through reinterpretation. And certainly, the  theocratic arm of the state should not be blaming its secular arm for placing some minimal civil-liberties brakes on the power of the state over its citizens.

The ideological position of many women’s organizations are also the reason Meir stayed in jail for so long. They know that they should be demanding systemic change and radical reinterpretation from the theocratic arm. And most of them do. But, at the same time, they rationalize that jail — even for life — of bad husbands is okay, so long as no systematic solution has yet been found. Here, they shortsightedly err. They do not understand that by touting a life sentence for one or two men every fifty years or so, they are giving the theocracy an excuse not to find a systemic solution or to reinterpret; they cloud the civil liberties vision of the secular arm of the state; and, while they may help a few women who married bad husbands to find freedom and relief, they are keeping all the rest of us Israeli women — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, alike—in the respective marital captivity of our respective husbands by requiring us to marry and divorce in accordance with our millets — our religious communities. For so long as the religious arm of the state theocracy is perceived as functioning diligently, aggressively, and efficiently, it obfuscates the fact that it is constructing the harm that it then alleges to save us from.

And perhaps most significantly, the Supreme Court of the State of Israel has operated against all civil liberty ideals to keep Meir in jail even when the law forbade it. According to the Rabbinic Court (Enforcement of Divorce Decisions) Law of 1995, the state is entitled to keep Meir in jail for two five-year terms, i.e. a maximum of ten years. After he had already been in jail for 12 years or so, Meir filed a habeas corpus appeal with the Supreme Court asking to be released. Among other things, he argued that his basic rights of human dignity and freedom were being crushed by the state.

Many women’s groups objected (The Center for Women’s Justice, in contrast, did not join the women’s groups who asked that Meir Gorodetsky be denied habeas corpus.). All of the state’s theocratic apparatuses opposed his release as well. The Supreme Court caved, ignoring its responsibility to the citizens of this country to, first and foremost, ensure that the state does not abuse the power allocated to it to exercise violence — i.e., to put people in jail. In the case of Meir Gorodetsky, this violence was specifically disallowed by law. Circumventing that law, the Court held that Meir was in contempt of court, and therefore could be held indefinitely in jail. But this decision was also in direct contradistinction to the time-honored rule that a contempt ruling is only given for the short term, and can never be given as a life sentence.

So how did Meir finally get released from jail? His wife Tzviya asked to close her divorce case, leaving the state with no reason to keep Meir in jail. She did this for a few reasons. First, because she couldn’t stand being dragged in to court for no reason, month after month, year after year. Second, her children had been denied their father, albeit a stubborn one. And third, the Center for Women’s Justice had convened a private Orthodox rabbinic court that declared her marriage annulled. In her mind, and according to the private rabbinic court, she was no longer married to Meir, the state’s position otherwise notwithstanding.

But the state did not release Meir immediately after Tzvia’s request. It took another year and a half in which the state further exercised its right of legitimated violence against a man who was guilty of stupidity and insolence. The theocratic arm garnered the aid of the prosecutor’s office and a state criminal judge to keep Meir in jail on the crime of ignoring a court ruling, hailing it as a “victory” for women held in marital captivity, agunot. But in reality, the victory that the theocratic arm of the state was really hailing was the misplaced and almost unfettered power that the state had given it to sustain marital captivity in the first instance.

Thus, the theocracy had already managed to keep Meir in jail for almost twice the allotted statutory time. And Tzviya, like the rest of us, is still in marital captivity, courtesy of the State of Israel.

About the Author
Susan Weiss, J.D. PhD., is the founder and director of the Center for Women’s Justice, an NGO set up with a feminist spirit and an ambitious objective: To shift the discriminatory status quo of religion and state regarding women, securing the way towards a more just and democratic society. CWJ envisions an Israel where the dignity and liberty of women are self-evident truths.
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