Knesset News – International Aguna Day

In joint meeting of Constitution Committee and Committee on the Status of Women for Agunah Day, Committee Chairs MK Kariv and MK Touma-Sliman demand a solution to economic situation of agunot

The Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, chaired by MK Gilad Kariv (Labor), and the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, chaired by MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List), convened on Wednesday for a joint meeting on the occasion of Agunah Day, addressing the issue of women unable to obtain a divorce under Jewish law.

Rivka Raani tearfully shared her personal story: “I have been an agunah for 18.5 years. I got married and lived in London. Immediately after the wedding, I saw that life with this man was not what I had expected, it was a terrible life of violence. I got pregnant and couldn’t wait to get back to Israel, to my family, for fear that he would hurt us. Since then I have remained with a daily struggle to raise a child alone, along with the battle against the court and the rabbinical court and against him, since he wouldn’t give a get [divorce under Jewish law]. Many people tried to do something, and he remarried and had a family, and I stayed this way.

“A few years ago the Yad La’isha organization managed to turn around the battle in the rabbinical court. The goal was to reach an annulment of the marriage, and thank God, before Rosh Hashanah there were several rabbis who agreed to undertake this, and said that it could have been annulled from the start, and the marriage was invalid because he committed sexual violence and no normal woman would have agreed to enter the marriage if she had known where it was going. His family did not agree to the annulment and applied pressure, and I returned to being an agunah. He was in prison, he is under excommunication, no one in his community does business with him, but he remains obstinate. There are no more ways to deal with the issue, and I remained this way. My child was born into this story. His father doesn’t acknowledge him. The state withdrew the income support when he reached age 18, I don’t receive child support; an attempt has to be made to think about these laws, to do something for the sake of other women, if not for me.”

Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chair MK Kariv thanked Raani for her courage, and said: “The pain is great and the eyes are tearing. The debate is aimed to insist that there are solutions, and the rabbinical courts are not private institutions. They are an organ of the State of Israel, which is subject to obligations. If there is a possible solution within the boundaries of the law, it must be produced. We will inquire into the question of the pressure applied to the rabbinical court and the judicial branch, and I will ask for clarification whether there was a judicial decision made—inasmuch as it was in a state court—from the Rabbinical Courts Administration, and how the decision was reversed under pressure from parties outside the judicial branch. Your situation is not just the outcome of the wickedness of one person, but also of the ineffectiveness of a branch of government. We should start thinking about legislation for Israel to provide economic assistance to women in this situation. It’s unthinkable that a person cannot build a better economic life because he or she is trapped in such a manner.”

Chair of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality MK Touma-Sliman: “Although I come from a background of intensive activity for women, I was only exposed to the issue as chair of the Committee on the Status of Women, and I started to study it in depth after social action organizations spoke out on behalf of agunot, women who were trapped in the system for many years and were unable to live as they wanted. I invested [efforts] for many years and will continue to invest, in the track of civil marriage and divorce, but we should bear in mind that even when that day comes, this House and the other branches of government will not be able to exempt themselves for discussing the situation of those who chose the religious-Halachic track of Jewish law.

“Perhaps part of the solution is to encourage a discourse on preventing people from entering such a trap. In 1995, when the Family Court Law was passed, the Muslim and Christian women were left outside it, and I led a battle for six years to amend the law and open up this option. The law did not make a revolutionary change in the status of women, but it gave an option for people who choose not to hold the proceedings in the religious courts. Perhaps the time has come to think about additional parallel solutions that will provide a way out for those whom the existing system causes great suffering.”

Adv. Moriah Dayan, a rabbinical advocate from Yad La’isha: “Rivka received a permit [to annual the marriage] lawfully from a panel of three rabbinical judges, who were appointed as a special panel by the presiding rabbinical judge, Rabbi Lau. This story was supposed to be confidential, but it was smeared all over the pages of the Haredi press for weeks, in a way that was detrimental to her. We were astonished by the way she was ambushed, including by a rabbinical judge who heard her case in the past; they presented an opinion on her personal case, and the pressure took its toll. After all that, she was given a ruling that reversed the previous ruling.

“There are solutions to Rivka’s story. Even within the system, there are rabbinical judges who are willing to provide solutions and issue rulings, but they are taking a double chance. Not only are they acting courageously in terms of Halacha, but they need to withstand intolerable social pressure, and they are threatened with not being promoted to the Great Rabbinical Court. This is the second time that a rabbinical judge who was designated for the Great Rabbinical Court has had his blood shed publicly for daring to issue a courageous ruling, and the system send him a signal. The Rabbinical Judges Selection Committee has started to work, and this is an opportunity to make a change, so that courageous rabbinical judges will be appointed, and it will be a statement that those who are daring will be promoted, rather than the opposite, as happened in the story with the agunah from Safed and in this case too.”

Meital shared her personal story as an agunah for five years: “I am a mother to two children, an engineer by profession, and I have been an agunah for the past five years. My husband fled abroad and we don’t know where he lives. Just a week and a half ago, I finally received a decision in the case, a ruling recommending that we get divorced and sending me abroad to ask him for a get. How is it possible that a get is not required after five years? As a high-tech professional in a world in which the State of Israel is the capital of technological startups, I find it hard to accept that women can be imprisoned in a virtual prison. You see me here, ostensibly free to work and care for my children. I want you to imagine for a moment that there are bars around me, that I walk around surrounded by a prison, that I can’t get married, have children, make a warm and loving home for my abandoned children. I feel that it’s like in dark times in history when there were slaves, and a master could decide to sell you to another master or give you a note saying that you can walk around freely—and I am still waiting for that note, to be free.

“I can’t accept the fact that in the State of Israel, a Western country, a woman doesn’t have the right to divorce. The bills being brought before you are important for me, but more important for the next generation. I don’t want any girl to be in my situation, and it could happen in any household. The Declaration of Independence says that the State of Israel will be based on freedom, justice and peace, and will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex. And I ask you, what about my freedom? I refuse to be an agunah for 20 or 30 years; I want a solution.”

Adv. Dr. Rafi Reches, legal advisor to the rabbinical courts, said: “A woman who isn’t interested in marriage and doesn’t care about getting married according to Jewish law, can live as a common-law spouse, and she will have full legal rights, in inheritance as well. If a woman wants to make sure that her children won’t be mamzerim [illegitimate children under Jewish law], it’s precisely for that purpose that the rabbinical courts give a kosher get according to Halacha. It is not the rabbinical courts that give the get, but rather the husband. The rabbinical judge who issues the ruling has to decide not only from the civil aspect, but also the Halachic aspect. If it cannot be allowed by Halacha, that is also his job. They are acting correctly according to their Halachic opinion, and that is what they have been appointed as rabbinical judges to do.

“Individual cases have been presented here, and I can’t comment on them, but I will present our general position. The statement that there is always a solution in every Halachic case is correct, in terms of the direction to which we aspire, but there are cases where there is no solution, as in medicine, where there are cases that the husband cannot be rendered alive and well, medically speaking. If the rabbinical judge thinks there is no way to free [the woman], the rabbinical judge is not to blame. If someone flees abroad and there is no Halachic way to free the woman, it is our job to leave no stone unturned in the attempt to free her.”

Committee Chair MK Kariv: “The Rabbinical Judges Selection Committee will convene here soon, with a new composition, which has women representatives by force of law in unprecedented numbers. We have expanded the representation of the profession of rabbinical advocates, and insisted that there would be two rabbinical advocates. I strongly hope that this will also find expression in the form of the rabbinical judges who are chosen, not only in terms of their erudition in Torah and Jewish law, but also in their sensitivity to this issue.

“We certainly appreciate the great efforts—administrative, logistical and operative—that are being made by the rabbinical courts. We have seen the numbers, and we know that there are people acting on behalf of the State of Israel and the rabbinical courts who work day and night to lift the chains of agunah status from women, and we congratulate you for these efforts. We have spoken about the fact that one of the jobs of this House is to place more resources at their disposal in this field as well.

“I call upon the organizations to create a joint road map of legislation that we can advance in this House. It’s unthinkable that an agunah who does not receive relief from the justice system in Israel will not receive financial aid. Prisoners of Zion receive a special stipend. The women here are Prisoners of Zion, and the judicial branch is a partner to their incarceration. I won’t accept the sanctions policy, which contradicts the law requiring you to impose them from the moment a recommendation is issued to obligate a get, and not only from the moment the get is obligated.

“We will praise you when necessary, and not only on matters of agunot. The timeframes have been significantly reduced, and you do this under difficult conditions; the rabbinical courts are discriminated against in terms of personnel, computer infrastructure and the ability to perform statistical research, and we will deal with that too. But we will not exempt you from being accountable to the policy that we enact. At the beginning of the next Assembly, we will conduct a follow-up meeting that will focus on the adjudication policy,” MK Kariv said.

Committee Chair MK Touma-Sliman: “How can a woman be imprisoned? It is a basic right to be and feel free and for her to decide on her own fate, and not to lay her head on the pillow at night thinking that there is someone in the world who can decide for her. It is even more worrying to me that the state is lending a hand to this, and not giving her a way out. When she goes to Income Tax and they tell her that she already has a file with that man and deny her financial assistance—that is a basic thing for all human beings, and men largely enjoy the benefit of this, while women have to tie their fate to the man they made the mistake of marrying.

“When I asked whether there were accepted norms or a particular judicial policy, it was for good reason. The main role is to uphold justice, and they should examine every possible way to uphold it and to let people live in the most normal and simple way as free people.” Addressing MK Kariv, she said: “You have proved that the discussion is not only about women’s rights, it is about the face of Israeli society, human rights and the kind of a state we want to have here.”

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