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Women's rights activists say that thousands of women are chained - agunot in Hebrew - to intransigent husbands who receive the backing of chauvinist rabbinic court judges for refusing to grant divorces was directly contradicted by Rabbinic Court data released on Tuesday.
According to the court data, at the end of 2006 there were only 180 women in Israel who could not divorce because their husbands refused to cooperate in cutting matrimonial ties.
Of these, just 69 were considered agunot by the courts.
Agunot were defined as women whose husbands stubbornly refused to cooperate even after various sanctions had been taken against them by the rabbinic courts (41), including suspension of drivers' licenses, prison sentences or restraining orders. Or women whose husbands had ran away to a foreign country.
In contrast, the International Coalition for Agunah Rights, which is made up of 25 organizations that help agunot, said there were as many as 100,000 agunot. The International Coalition's number is much higher because it includes women who completed the divorce process and received a divorce writ [get], but did so by forfeiting some of their basic rights, such as alimony, child support or child custody. It also includes women who want a divorce but who have despaired of the rabbinic courts because the judges are considered partial to the husband.
But according to the Rabbinic Court's data, more men (190) than women were "chained" to intransigent spouses.
According to Jewish law, until a woman completes a divorce by receiving a get from her husband, she is not allowed to remarry. Any sexual relationship she has with a man other than her husband is prohibited and a child born of such an illicit relationship is a mamzer - a Jew stigmatized for the rest of his or her life by being barred from marrying anyone other than another mamzer or a convert.
Often in these situations, the mamzer marries abroad and the marriage is recognized in Israel. In order to enforce this statute, the Rabbinate keeps a list of mamzerim.
For the past 1,000 years, ever since the decree of Rabbeinu Gershom, a man must receive the consent of his wife before he can divorce her. Therefore, men are also forbidden to remarry until they complete the divorce proceedings with their first wife. But, unlike a woman, a child born of a man's illicit relationship with a woman other than his wife is not considered a mamzer.
Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, administrative head of the rabbinic courts, presented the new data during a press conference at the Rabbinic Court's headquarters in Jerusalem.
"Women's organizations who fight for agunot's rights present baseless claims that they have no intention or desire to prove," said Ben-Dahan. "I challenge them to bring proof that there are even a tenth of the numbers of agunot that they claim there are."
Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kadari, director of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women at Bar-Ilan University, said the data released by the rabbinical courts was misleading. "Measuring the phenomenon of agunot is similar to measuring domestic violence," she said. "When measuring the dimensions of domestic violence, discrete surveys reveal rates that are seven times higher than police records. The same is true about agunot.
"Many women never end up in the rabbinic courts because they are simply not willing to forfeit so much to get divorced. Others who do get divorced have to pay such a high price that they regret ever having paid. Still others, whose files are defined as 'dormant,' are victims of the foot-dragging of rabbinic court judges or of insuperable delays."
According to the data released on Tuesday, 942 divorce files opened sometime before January 2005 were still not resolved two years later, on December 31, 2006.
Of these, 13 percent were not resolved due to monetary disputes, 19% due to the husband's intransigence and 20% due to the wife's.
About 5% of the cases were not resolved by the court because the sides had reconciled, while in another 11% of the cases a divorce agreement was reached between the sides but no get was given. In 18% of the cases the sides abandoned the divorce process in the middle and the file was frozen.