Festival of freedom?

Not only do religious courts not offer a solution to the phenomenon of get-refusal, but they sow the seeds for continued extortion.

By OSNAT SHARON
March 30, 2015 21:59
4 minute read.
Divorce

Divorce. (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)

 
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Naama cannot fall asleep at night. She never imagined that she would find herself living in such threatening circumstances – the type one generally associates with movies featuring gangsters or the mafia. She tries to understand how she found herself the victim of extortion for over half a million shekels – a ransom for her freedom.

Naama’s life has turned into a an episodic drama in which she, just 33 years old, is the main character, fearing for her own life and the lives of her four children.

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If this were an episode of Law and Order, the police would swarm in, investigate, pursue and eventually apprehend the scoundrel who was threatening Naama and her children. The district attorney would bring the monster to trial and, after a dramatic summation to the jury, he would be found guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt.

But Naama is not in Hollywood; she is a real, live woman in Israel of 2015, a place where she cannot even complain to the police about the threat hanging over her head. The “bad guy” in the story is none other than her husband, Ofer, who is refusing to grant her a “get,” a religious divorce, unless she waives her rights to child support for their four children – a grand total of NIS 500,000 which is meant to pay for their housing, food, health, education and clothing until they turn 18.

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If Naama were an executive being blackmailed by her business partner, or a public figure being extorted over an episode from her past, the police and courts would long ago have become involved. But in Naama’s case, the blackmail is actually sanctioned by law, or – to be exact – by the religious courts.

In the religious courts, she is the problem; she is the one preventing the divorce. “You’re chaining yourself,” say the judges. “There is no issue of get-refusal here, just a financial dispute. Why not just give him what he wants and set yourself free?” As we prepare for Passover – the ultimate Jewish festival of freedom – we must acknowledge that sadly, Naama’s story is not unique. Hers is the story of many women who come to our offices each day; women who cannot move past the salt water and bitter herbs of bondage, women who are being blackmailed to give up their rights to child support, joint marital property and sometimes even the custody of their own children.

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If the women refuse to pay the ransom, they may be tagged by the religious courts as “difficult,” “problematic” or “provocative.” Although Naama suffered violent abuse at Ofer’s hands followed by six years of get-refusal, still, the religious court did not issue a ruling compelling him to grant her a divorce.

Instead, they agreed to his terms, which included waiving child support. And when Naama threw her hands up and cried, “But how will I support our four children?” the presiding judge didn’t flinch; he offered his personal guarantee that she would receive child support from the state. Yes, the head of the tribunal preferred the risk of having to reach into his own pocket over having to compel Ofer to give his wife the freedom she deserved.

Unfortunately, we encounter this phenomenon again and again; not only do the religious courts not offer a solution to the phenomenon of get-refusal, but by pressuring women to accede to their husbands’ demands or otherwise perpetuating the blackmail, they sow the seeds for continued extortion.

“Threatening a person in writing, orally or by conduct, by unlawful injury to his body or to the body of another person, to their liberty, their property or their livelihood... or intimidating a person in any other way, all in order to motivate a person to do something or to refrain from doing something he is entitled to do.”

These words can be found in our penal code under the description of extortion by threat, a conviction for which the punishment is up to nine years in jail if the extortion was successful.

But in this case – like in so many others – it was Naama who was incarcerated; chained to an abusive marriage, she was prevented from experiencing her personal exodus.

Naama’s husband, on the other hand, has celebrated Passover and every other day as a true “ben horin” – a free man – and now he also has half a million reasons to laugh all the way to the bank.

Rabbinical court advocate and attorney Osnat Sharon is director of Ohr Torah Stone’s “Yad L’isha – The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline,” which represents agunot

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