An ancient Israeli law leaves thousands of women ‘chained’ to their wayward husbands
By Middle East correspondent Allyson Horn, Fouad AbuGosh and Haidarr Jones in Jerusalem
Orly Vital spent more than a decade of her adult life trapped in a marriage she wanted to leave.
Spousal laws in Israel meant the 44-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jew couldn’t divorce her husband without his permission.
Ms Vital said that while he was a controlling man, she did not expect her husband would refuse to free her.
“I felt handcuffed,” she said. “I felt that someone else controlled my life and forced me to do things that I didn’t like to do.
“I was trapped.”
Israel does not allow civil marriages for its citizens.
All Jews, even secular, can only have a religious marriage governed by religious laws.
The ancient laws state that when a marriage breaks down, both parties must willingly sign a document, called a “get”, agreeing to sever all marriage ties.
Many Israeli women like Ms Vital become chained to dead marriages each year, when their partners refuse to give them the get.
“No-one can feel or understand the situation that you’re living in,” she said.
“I continued my life as normal with a smile, because I’m optimistic.
“But in my heart, it was very hard because my freedom had been taken away from me.”
When women can’t get a divorce, they go to Pnina
The Yad La’isha Legal Aid Centre was set up to help shackled women break their marriage bonds.
The organisation estimates that every year, up to 2,400 Israelis become “agunot”, which means chained wife, or “mesuravot get”, a woman refused a divorce.
Pnina Omer works at the centre, pressuring what she calls “get-refusers” through legal channels.
“For women, it’s really tough, a struggle, to get out of a marriage if her husband will not cooperate,” she said.
“We can close his bank account, not let him leave the country, get him fired from his work, shame him on the internet.
“And we always hope this pressure will help him to cooperate.”
The centre’s work is slow and laborious, but the people there do manage to break the chains.
They estimate 60 women each year gain their freedom due to Yad La’isha’s representation.
The men who would rather be jailed than divorced
In countries like Australia, no-fault divorces allow a couple to split up even if one spouse does not want the relationship to end.
As long as the couple has lived separately for 12 months and the family court is satisfied the marriage has broken down irretrievably, a divorce is granted.
The introduction of no-fault divorces in Australia in 1975 allowed many people to flee domestic abuse and toxic marriages.
But Israelis don’t have this legal protection.
In disputed circumstances, women can raise their plight with rabbi judges, who govern Jewish law matters in rabbinical courts.
The rabbinical judges can rule a person should give their partner a divorce.
But crucially, they cannot force it to happen.
Some men in Israel have chosen to go to jail as punishment for refusing the court’s wishes, rather than free their wives from the marriage.
Rabbi Daniel Sperber said many people ended up in difficult situations because of the Jewish law.
“Let’s say the husband says, ‘I don’t care, I don’t need to live with her, but I’ll never let her have another man.’ That is a very tragic situation,” he said.
“So the women become widows within their own lifetime and their only way out is, I guess, if the husband dies.”
How Orly won her freedom with the help of a private detective
Seven years after Orly Vital first approached the rabbinical court, it ruled her husband should give his wife the get.
But instead, Ms Vital’s husband fled and went into hiding.
The Yad La’isha Legal Aid Centre employed a private investigator to track down Ms Vital’s husband but it took another seven years to find him.
When he was detained, he was jailed for several months where he still refused to give his wife the get.
Earlier this year, he finally relented.
She was free.
But it took Ms Vital 14 years to get her divorce, and her life ground to a halt during that time.
She said her religious beliefs restricted her from having contact with other men, while she was still technically married.
“As [an ultra-Orthodox Jewish] woman there are rules, I can’t just act freely,” she said.
“I wanted so much to date someone, but it was not possible.
“Even having a coffee with someone, I was not free to do.”
With dating and remarriage out of the question, she was also barred from having more children, a loss she grieves deeply.
Women’s rights advocates have been pressuring Israeli politicians to legalise civil marriage to avoid women, or men, being held hostage by their partners.
But there is not widespread support within Israel’s parliament to legalise civil marriages.
“It’s crazy. This is the 21st century,” Pnina Omer said.
“As a religious, feminist, Orthodox woman, I feel so bad about this.
“And I feel that it’s my responsibility to fight for these women’s freedom, but also to fight for change.”