The “race to the courthouse” in the context of divorce proceedings is wrecking
people’s lives, Kochav Avital Shahar recently told The Jerusalem Post, sharing
her personal story with the public for the first time.
The “race,” as
Shahar describes it, has to do with whether a couple’s divorce proceedings get
heard by the rabbinical courts, the family courts or a combination of the
But the best illustration is Shahar’s painful personal story, a rare
look (women are generally too afraid of backlash to come forward publicly) into
the life of a secular woman whose life was turned upside down by the religious
and legal technicalities plaguing Israel’s divorce proceedings.
Avital Shahar was married in 1991. She had four children with her husband. They
separated in 2001, but didn’t start divorce proceedings until
First, Shahar filed the economic and child custody aspects of her
case in the family courts.
According to many lawyers, the family courts
have a reputation for being more sympathetic to women. Men tend to rush to the
rabbinical courts and women try to race to the family courts.
didn’t know that her husband had already filed to open a case in the rabbinical
courts in earlier 2004.
The rabbinical courts always deal with granting a
get (a halachic divorce decree), but economic and child-custody issues can be
decided by either the family, or the rabbinical courts. However, which one of
the two it turns out to be depends on where the case is filed
Ultimately, it was found that Shahar’s husband misfiled his case
in the rabbinical courts. His case was thrown out and she was able to have the
economic and childcustody issues heard in family court.
However, that was
only after languishing for three years with no progress, due to the issue of
which court should hear the case.
For two of the three years, Shahar was
simply waiting for the Rabbinical High Court to intervene and eventually reject
her husband’s appeal. The lower rabbinical court had thrown out his complaint
and agreed to Shahar’s request to send the case to family court.
husband appealed, but the Rabbinical High Court upheld the lower court’s
The case appears even more bizarre when the grounds for which
the court eventually threw out Shahar’s husband’s rabbinical court pleading were
obvious technical deficiencies which could have been immediately noticed and
In other words, there was no specific substantive reason, or
missing information that would have prevented the court from moving the case
forward to family court at a much earlier date.
The rabbinical court had
already correctly identified defects in the husband’s court pleading, but with
the mere act of appealing and because the Rabbinical High Court was slow to hear
the case, the husband successfully dragged the case out for an additional two
In fact the only issue he raised in his appeal was the race to the
courthouse argument that Shahar had not raised her objection to having the case
heard in the rabbinical courts at the first 2006 hearing.
quickly dismissed this argument stating that Shahar had immediately raised her
objection – hardly a difficult issue that required two years of
During this period, Shahar was unable get a final ruling
regarding alimony and child support, because she was still waiting for a
decision on which of the two courts would decide in her case.
She and her
four kids lived in cramped quarters, with her parents during that time, unable
to afford their own place.
“Why do I need to fight to get a divorce?”
asked Shahar exasperated.
The picture is even more jarring when
considering that she is secular and does not believe in the authority of the
rabbinical court, but has no choice under current Israeli law.
eventually aided in her case by the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the
Status of Women at Bar Ilan University.
Director-General Atara Kenigsberg
of the Center said that too many cases start in the rabbinical courts, whereas
the family courts could easily take on more cases and are not being optimally
The Rackman Center was founded 11 years ago by Professor Ruth
Halperin-Kadori and presents its mission as to “eradicate discrimination against
women and strengthen their status in Israeli society by translating academic
knowledge and research into practical steps and activities.”
helps women with divorce proceeding issues by providing expert advice and
sometimes helps locate counsel.
The center is also involved in
legislative initiatives to improve and change the system itself for women and
One of the center’s attorneys, Adi Blotner, said that in other
countries there is one judge for one family and that the judge addresses all
In contrast, she said, what she characterized as the
broken “race to the courthouse” system in Israel, allows the rabbinical court
judge, or even the family court judge to feel absolved because neither of them
has complete responsibility for the case and its overall impact on the
Blotner also said that the system creates incentives to rush
litigation instead of pursuing mediation, cooperation and other methods that
might lead to a quicker, more amicable resolution of the divorce and be less
damaging for any children involved.
In June 2010, a commission was formed
by Justice Minister Yaakov Ne’eman, which initially appeared ready to endorse a
change in the balance of power between the court regarding divorce: All issues
would go to family courts automatically, except for getting the divorce decree
Both sides would have had 30 days to make efforts to switch any
issue to the rabbinical courts, but even in that case, a strict leash would have
been kept on the time for any final decisions on which court would hear the
This new initiative would also encourage cooperation and
discourage rushing to litigation, as the case would already be in family court
as soon as either party took any legal action.
Also, the family court
could decide quickly regarding alimony and child support, removing issues that
the husband could conceivably hold over his wife before he agrees to grant her a
The phenomenon of “get-extortion” (where a recalcitrant
husband delays granting a divorce to pressure the wife on alimony/child support
issues) is well-known.
Under the law applying to Jews in Israel, a Jew
cannot remarry without first obtaining a divorce with the husband’s
But various political pressures were brought to bear on Ne’eman
and the proposal, at least for the time being, was tabled.
indicate that there are some rabbinical court judges who have tried to improve
the situation on their own, but that others are far more concerned that if they
move too fast, or appear to favor women, they will be attacked by right-wing
These rabbis allegedly worry more about these attacks than
the impact on families of delays in cases they are hearing.
new law is still a possibility. But until it gets passed, women like Shahar may
continue to suffer for years without a divorce, for no other reason than
confusing jurisdictional procedures.