Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz on Sunday said that a campaign by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Knesset Advancement of Women Committee chairwoman Aliza Lavie to eliminate the “race to the courthouse” problem plaguing agunot, or women whose husbands deny them a divorce, was a “small Band-Aid on an open wound.”
The “race to the courthouse” dilemma refers to the situation where rabbinical courts and civil family courts have overlapping jurisdiction over divorce issues. The overlap may lead to several years of delays in women obtaining a divorce from recalcitrant husbands simply because of procedural defects.
Defects can involve courts trading contrary decisions or refusing to take action in expectation that another is handling the issue.
Horowitz said the all inclusive answer to solve a diverse array of marriage problems in the country would be to enact civil marriage – removing control from the religious arena. He explained that by solely eliminating the race to the courthouse problem, which only helps some Jewish heterosexual agunot, was like placing a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem.
Supporters of civil marriage say this would alleviate problems for homosexuals, certain non-Jews or mixed-religion couples as well as make secular Jews, who are not enthralled with the rabbinate, happier.
Livni’s office did not fully respond, but invited Horowitz to voice his thoughts at future Knesset debates.
Lavie said that she and her party Yesh Atid support civil marriage.
Still, she said that Horowitz was missing the point and that the race to the courthouse reform should happen “in parallel” to any push for civil marriage and should not be held up by the ongoing debate on that even more contested issue.
She explained, “the reality is that most citizens in Israel get married according to Jewish law and need the divorce reforms.”
Lavie continued, “in a state where the religious law has exclusive power, we need to fix the law and immediately,” saying that Horowitz’s ignoring the reform would “leave the current majority behind with no support.”
Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, head of the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, echoed Lavie’s message that support for civil marriage should not detract from fighting to end the race to the courthouse dilemma.
She said that in religious marriage “the greatest problem is this notorious race of jurisdictions, which takes an enormous toll on divorcing couples, on their children and has a great discriminatory effect on women.”
Halperin-Kaddari added that “because of the race for jurisdiction, there is realistically no possibility of settling disputes through alternative dispute resolution outside the courts, such as by mediation or negotiation – everyone wants the upper hand of getting the better jurisdiction for them.”
She said that the campaign to end the race to the courthouse has been going “for years” and “we really hope that we will accomplish our goals.”