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For more than 10 years, women's groups highlighting the plight of agunot (women refused divorces by their husbands) have been working to change a 1973 law that prevents divorcing couples in Israel from fairly dividing up their assets until a get (bill of divorce) is granted by the religious courts.
The law, which often leads to women being blackmailed into giving up their rights to shared property or leaves them "chained" to their former husbands indefinitely, needs to be modified, they say.
On Sunday, new legislation is to be presented to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation for a vote. It would allow religious and secular courts to automatically divide up the assets of couples whose divorce proceedings drag on for more than nine months and, in cases of domestic violence, even earlier.
Thirty-seven parliamentarians, led by MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima), have lent their signatures to the bill, which was drafted by the International Coalition for Agunah Rights (ICAR) - an umbrella body for more than 25 organizations working with agunot - in coordination with the Justice Ministry. Those behind the bill are aware that haredi factions within the Knesset may voice objections to any changes that may compromise Halacha, but note that several leading Orthodox rabbis are backing it.
"We want to work with the Rabbinate," Schneller told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. "Of course, divorces must be granted according to Jewish law, but Israel is a modern society and it must be open, liberal and flexible," said the MK, who is Orthodox. "The goal here is to achieve shalom bayit (domestic tranquility). Money should not be the governing factor," he continued, adding that based on talks with officials in the Rabbinate, he was hopeful the new law would find support among Orthodox groups too.
"Attempts have been made before to change this law," said Batsheva Sherman, legal adviser for ICAR and director of Yad L'Isha, the Max Morrison Legal Aid Center and Hot Line For Women. "In the past, [this kind of legislation] did not pass because religious MKs opposed it. But this time, it has been modified and is being submitted by [Schneller], a religious MK."
Sherman explained that assets such as bank accounts or pension funds, which are very often in the husband's name, could not be divided up until a divorce is finalized.
"Under Jewish law, both sides have to agree to a divorce and if the assets are in the husband's name then he holds the power to refuse a divorce unless the woman agrees to give up her rights to them," she said, highlighting that women who do not obtain a divorce via the religious courts are not able to remarry.
"The [proposed] law will not solve the really difficult divorce cases but it will make the divorce process easier for thousands of women whose husbands refuse to grant a get unless they relinquish all claims on the couple's joint assets," said Marc Luria, ICAR's volunteer lobbyist in the Knesset and government. "This is the first step to changing an unfair system."
Luria said that because the Justice Ministry was recommending the law, he was hopeful that the chairwoman of the Ministerial Committee, Justice and Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, would give it her support and that many others on the panel had given their assurances it would reach the Knesset plenum for the requisite rounds of voting.
Even if the haredi parties such as United Torah Judaism and Shas oppose the bill, Luria said he believed there would be enough support from other MKs to vote it into a law in the coming months.
Luria added that the organization had also secured the support of some prominent Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the hesder yeshiva in Petah Tikva and Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, head of the Kibbutz Hadati Yeshiva in Ma'aleh Gilboa, who had prepared testimony that the proposed law does not contradict Jewish law.
The Chief Rabbi's office, contacted for this article, had not responded by press time.