Beyond Faces Of Israel: A Look At The Agunah Problem

posted on friday, april 8, 2011

Readers familiar with Faces of Israel may recall that the educational program, while addressing many serious issues of religion and state in Israel, does not focus on the particular question of agunot — women “chained” or “anchored” to marriages to men who refuse to give them a writ of religious divorce, or get. The reason we did not touch this topic is quite simple. Faces deals with many of the major religion and state issues in Israel that have been left previously unexplored. The agunah problem is one that has already inspired several excellent documentaries, educational initiatives, and charitable organizations. We decided it was more urgent to prompt discussion of other matters that have seen less light. With that said, this blog will continue to report on new developments in all issues relating to religion and state in Israel, including the agunah issue.

It is unknown how many women in Israel are agunot. Israeli rabbinical courts have, at times, released numbers which are simply too low to be credible, as has been pointed out by religious women’s rights activist Rivkah Lubitch. In the early 1990s TIME magazine estimated that there were 10,000. The US State Department’s 2009 report on human rights in Israel notes that there are “thousands,” correctly adding that “Jewish women married to Jewish men do not have redress to civil courts; only religious courts can rule on personal status issues.”

We’ll end this blog with some bittersweet news. One of the important messages of Faces of Israel is that these tricky questions of religion and state are being worked out all the time. Progress happens, thanks to people like you who take an interest in it. And so we happily report on the landmark January 31st decision by the Tel Aviv District Court that “recalcitrant husbands,” that is, men who refuse their wives the basic right of divorce, are liable to be sued in civil court. A woman just two months ago had her bid to sue her recalcitrant husband for seven hundred thousand New Israeli Sheqalim upheld. In other words, civil courts are finally giving chained women some reprieve.

But here is the flip side. Rivkah Lubitch, again, reports on an astounding statement from a Rabbinic Court in Israel:

“A man who refused to give his wife a get for 10 years asked a rabbinic court to determine if he is should be considered a “recalcitrant husband” or not. He hoped to present the determination to the Family Courts where his wife was suing him for damages that had ensued as a result of his behavior.

However, the Rabbinic Court surprisingly turned matters on their head by ruling that the wife was “anchoring herself” to the marriage.

The judges even suggested that “perhaps the woman will wake up from her coma and from her stubbornness and understand that she is the recalcitrant one”-since she refuses to compromise with her husband on division of property.

On this, it appears that the civil courts and rabbinic courts may be at odds in the near term. Let’s call this two steps forward, and one step back. That’s progress, no?

written by alex schindler