A bill that would give the rabbinical courts in Israel the ability to impose punitive sanctions on non-Israeli divorce refusers was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday for passage to the Knesset.
While the rabbinical courts are currently empowered by Israeli law to hold hearings and impose sanctions in a case where only one of the spouses hold Israeli citizenship or are residents in the country, the new law would enable the rabbinical courts to do so even if neither spouse has citizenship or is a resident of the country.
The rabbinical courts in Israel can impose sanctions on recalcitrant spouses to persuade them to divorce, such as revoking driving licenses, revoking passports, placing restrictions on their bank accounts, and even imprisoning them for extended periods of time.
Such sanctions are not at the disposal of rabbinical courts in the Diaspora since they are not state institutions, meaning that there are few effective tools for persuading a recalcitrant spouse to consent to a divorce.
According to the Rabbinical Courts Administration, the Conference of European Rabbis, a major association of Orthodox rabbis in Europe, requested that the Israeli rabbinical courts find a solution for cases of divorce recalcitrance involving non-Israelis, a request that is answered by the new legislation.
Under the proposed law, the rabbinical courts in Israel will only be able to hear the case if the recalcitrant partner is present in Israel, and as long as the plaintiff has applied for Jewish divorce in their country of origin.
Should the rabbinical court issue a decision requiring the recalcitrant partner to consent to the divorce and they refuse, the court would be entitled to begin hearings on the imposition of sanctions against them.
“The Conference of European Rabbis raised the difficulties that exist in situations in which a couple who married in accordance with Jewish law in the Diaspora are unable to divorce and find themselves agunot [a Jewish woman who is “chained” to her marriage] without the possibility of remarrying,” says the explanatory section of the new legislation.
“The centrality of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and its importance in the lives of Jews around the world in the face of the inability of Jewish women in the Diaspora to find a solution to the problems of divorce recalcitrance justifies granting this authority to the rabbinical courts in Israel,” it says.
Although the legislation has been cautiously welcomed by some women’s rights groups in Israel, there has been concern about some of the stipulations of the bill.
The Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women has welcomed the goal of providing firm measures to persuade a recalcitrant spouse from the Diaspora to consent to a divorce through sanctions imposed by the rabbinical courts in Israel.
Yet, in 2015, less than 1% of Israeli divorce cases saw the use of such punitive sanctions. Nonetheless, Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, the founding head of the Rackman Center, said that she believes the rabbinical courts would be more inclined to employ them in high-profile international cases.
And, she said, it was likely that detaining a recalcitrant spouse in Israel and thereby preventing him from returning to his life back home would have a swift and compelling effect on him to grant the divorce.
Halperin-Kaddari did, however, express concern with another clause in the bill that would give the rabbinical courts jurisdiction in cases in which a couple married in a civil ceremony in the Diaspora and are facing difficulties obtaining a divorce in that country, including couples who are Israeli citizens.
She said that this clause represented an attempt to expand the rabbinical court’s jurisdiction in Israel when such issues should be dealt with in the civil family courts.
Others are more skeptical yet.
Susan Weiss, the director of the Center for Women’s Justice, points out that although the rabbinical courts can impose sanctions, it still does not and cannot end a marriage and this can leave women stuck in their marriages and unable to remarry.
Weiss also says that preventing an individual from leaving the country and forcing him into the jurisdiction of the Israeli rabbinical courts is a severe restriction on their human rights, and argues that it is hypocritical for the rabbinical courts to act so decisively and swiftly on cases involving foreigners, while allowing recalcitrant husbands in Israel to extort a favorable divorce settlement in return for a divorce over an extended period of time, as frequently happens.
Religious Services Minister David Azoulay, who has advanced the bill, warmly welcomed its passage to the Knesset.
He said that the rabbinical courts and the president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, “work vigorously and uncompromisingly to find a remedy for the distress of chained women by expanding the authorities of the rabbinical courts for Diaspora Jewry even if they are not Israeli citizens.”
Azoulay said that “The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and it is therefore incumbent upon it to provide help to all Jews, wherever they are around the world.”
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