Yom Haaguna was marked in the Knesset this year with a special hearing in the Committee for the Advancement of Women and Gender Equality, initiated by MK Dr. Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid). Testimony was heard from advocates and clients of Yad L’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Women, along with representatives of other women’s organizations, including the Rackman Center, ORA, Naamat, Wizo and Emuna. In addition, Rabbinical Courts administrator Rabbi Shimon Yaakovi was present to provide the courts’ perspective on the issue.
In the hall outside the hearing there was a compelling photo exhibit called “Status: Pending,” featuring and inspired by 20 Yad L’isha clients. In each piece, photographers Shabi Kedem, Nir Kedar, Lena Gomon and Chamutal Golan captured the feelings of despair, discontent or hope as expressed by each woman in the accompanying texts. Inbar, who has been denied a get for three and a half years, wrote: “I am trying to go on and rebuild my life, but the get is always hovering in the background.” Another client, who has been refused a get for more than eight years, wrote: “I felt fear during my married life and I continue to live in fear even now. Denying one’s wife her divorce is violence.”
One of the exhibited pictures, of a woman trapped in a bubble, was inspired by the description by Yad L’isha client D – the woman whose case made headlines last week for the precedent-setting ruling incarcerating the father of her recalcitrant husband: “I can’t breathe. This terrible situation of being in limbo, not being married and not being divorced, is closing in on me,” she wrote.
During the hearing, committee chairwoman Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List) said she will never understand a situation in which “women are imprisoned and cannot choose how they live. There are women imprisoned – not in a physical cell but in its equivalent. They do not receive their basic right to decide upon their future.” Touma-Sliman also said, “I would like to have civil marriage in this country, but until then, the rabbinical courts must decide that they will not cause this suffering, and that they will act to free the women. The suffering of just one woman is already too much.”
MKs at the well-attended hearing included Dr. Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), Dov Khenin (Joint List), Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid), Revital Swid (Zionist Union), Shuli Mualem (Bayit Hayehudi), Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union).
MK Lavie spoke about courageous Jewish leaders’ use of Jewish law throughout Jewish history in order to help agunot, lamenting the fact that today’s spiritual leaders “lack the halakhic courage needed to take such actions. Fear and paralysis have stricken our rabbinical courts since the establishment of the state,” she maintained. “Since the State’s founding, the number of women being denied a divorce has grown, a horrific reality arising from religious bureaucracy, amongst other things. Taanit Esther has been named international Yom Ha’aguna because we need to understand that aginut is not a private issue but rather one that affects all of world Jewry,” said Lavie.
MK Azaria recounted a case she had encountered in which a father was sitting in jail for raping his daughter, and yet the court nonetheless refused to grant his wife a chiyyuv get because, according to halakha, he had done nothing wrong to her.” Azaria decried the extortion that takes place in the courts, stating: “I came to the Knesset to tackle four issues. On each one I was told, ‘don’t bother, it’s impossible to change,’ and yet, on three of the four I was able to make a difference. Only on this fourth issue, the issue of agunot, I see that really, it is impossible to make a difference – only because they don’t want to.”
Yad L’isha’s director, Osnat Sharon, was asked to open the hearing with testimony on her experience of the difference between the rabbinical courts’ actions in Israel and abroad. “We work a great deal with rabbinical courts from abroad,” she said. “Just in the last year we encountered two heartbreaking cases of women who experienced great hardship from the Israeli rabbinical courts and yet, when their cases had to go to courts abroad, had a completely different experience. Their interaction with the courts there provided them both with relief and proved once again that it is possible to act differently.”
One of the Yad L’isha clients Sharon was referring to also addressed the committee and shared her story. Denied a get for seven years, Orit’s husband eventually escaped to America. “It took four-and-a-half years until the Israeli rabbinical court even issued a ruling compelling him to give me a divorce,” she related. “At one point, the head of the Israeli tribunal even said that I was to blame for being a chained woman, since I was the one who called the police when he was violent. It was only after I was on a Channel Two news story that he was recognized in America and a court hearing was enabled there. Finally, there, I felt that I was being taken seriously,” she testified. “They studied my case in advance, they knew what had happened and wanted to help. It was only there I felt that I was truly seen as a person.”
Rabbinical Courts administrator Rabbi Shimon Yaakovi responded by saying that most of the related to the courts’ working in Israel were
the result of the judges’ “heavy workloads,” – a claim disputed by the advocates present, who testified repeatedly to cases in which the judges came late or didn’t show up at all, stopped working in the middle of a hearing “because the clock showed 2 pm,” or arbitrarily decided to impose their own personal stringencies. Yaakovi noted each case, promised to look into each one and said that the situation is improving.
The hearing ended with a decision to “continue the discussion” until a solution to the problem was found.