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Long arm of an abusive husband 

Over the years we have increasingly understood that get-refusal is a tool used by men who are perfectly willing to threaten their wives.

By PNINA OMER  | November 24, 2021 

Ayelet is just 25. Married for three years, she is the mother of two beautiful children who were born to a man who never afforded his family even one day of peace and tranquility. She lives under an almost constant threat of the most severe types of emotional and mental abuse, with a husband who mercilessly controls every minute of her day and every step she takes. She lives with no free choice or ability to chart her own path.

Despite those daily challenges, Ayelet never considered breaking up her family just because her life was so difficult; after all, she was repeatedly told that starting a family is filled with obstacles. She was told to change her ways, she was offered all sorts of advice by consultants, and more than anything else, she desperately wanted to succeed in building a happy family and believed that as long as there was even a glimmer of hope, the possibility of success remained.

It was only when Ayelet began to see her young son imitating his father’s abusive speech and behavior that she realized she had to leave – not to save herself, but to save her children.

Orna is 65. Her five children already moved out of the family home years ago. She came to us as a truly broken soul. She sat in our office and the tears started to flow as she admitted that even she couldn’t comprehend the scope of pain that she had been forced to endure over the years. Her story exposed a lifetime of harsh abuse where she would be repeatedly beaten and punished, destroying any motivation she had to succeed. In her own eyes, Orna was simply a piece of property that he would do with as he wished.

For 45 years, she endured the horror of raising her children with an abusive husband. As they began to leave the home she also wanted to leave, but she was afraid. She knew that he was held in high regard in the community… and who would trust the word of a simple woman in the face of this esteemed figure? How would she learn to survive in a world where she had never been given a chance to live even one day as a truly free woman?

When we sit and listen to the stories of women like Ayelet and Orna, our hearts and souls feel torn into thousands of pieces. We know that sometimes the passage of time in an abusive relationship can help inspire the bravery to demand a divorce. These women are forced to rely on their survival instincts and find any means of escaping the cycle of violence. Sadly, after summing up all that courage and overcoming the fear that naturally comes with divorce, so many of them arrive at the rabbinical court for their hearing only to be met with a brick wall. The same man who abused them for all those years of tragic partnership refuses to let them go, refuses to grant them the get, a halachic divorce.

In cases of get-abuse, the form of violence may have changed its face, but is no less sinister – the get, which is designed to provide a woman with freedom, turns into the latest weapon he has at his disposal to further humiliate and entrap.

Get-refusal is by all accounts a way to punish a woman for demanding her freedom. She is prevented from remarrying or from having more children. She is prevented from living her life as she deserves to live it. To think that in the 21st century, an era where we have learned to embrace and support individual freedoms, a man is so easily able to keep a woman trapped in a relationship completely against her will is incomprehensible. But such is our reality.

We confront cases where men are so intent on harming their wives that they will flee the country to avoid granting the get or even prefer to sit in prison because they are so committed to enchaining the woman they once stood under the huppah (wedding canopy) and promised to care for. Just last month, a man imprisoned for get-refusal died in prison of a terminal illness. Despite his diagnosis, despite knowing that he would never leave prison alive if he didn’t relent, he nonetheless preferred to die in jail rather than grant his wife her freedom. Another case involved a man who fled to Turkey, leaving behind his wife who begged him for a get for no less than 20 years. But nothing helped; for two decades he continued to control and abuse her from afar and only his recent death set her free.

In other cases, we confront men who stand behind their get-refusal with all sorts of excuses; whether it be their claims that they want to see a family reconciliation – a tactic intended to tie the hands of the court and prevent them from demanding that he grant a get. These proceedings can go on for months and years and become a form of mental attrition, where all too often the woman is forced to comply with irrational and often costly demands in order to earn her freedom.

To date, we have succeeded in granting about 1,000 of these women the new lives they need and deserve.

Over the years we have increasingly understood that get-refusal is a tool used by men who are perfectly willing to threaten their wives – whether it be with physical abuse or with the mental abuse of this latest form of entrapment.

Get-refusal must be recognized as another form of violence against women, one that has no place in a modern, civil society. On behalf of society we must find a way to rid ourselves of its existence.

And until we reach that day, our efforts will continue on behalf of these women and their children. We will continue to be there for them until the moment when they finally have their get in hand – blessed with the ability to pursue free and independent lives.

The writer is the director of Yad La’isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Agunot, part of the international Ohr Torah Stone network.

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