Rabbinical Courts gain authority to sanction foreign divorce refusers

In Israel, divorce refusers can have their driving licenses and passports revoked, restrictions placed on their bank account and even imprisonment.

The Great Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
The Great Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee has approved legislation that will permanently enable rabbinical courts in Israel to intervene in cases of divorce refusal of foreign nationals and sanction them.

The committee approved the legislation on Tuesday for its final readings in the Knesset plenum, where it is expected to pass easily due to support from haredi (ultra-Orthodox) MKs in the opposition, as well as enjoying coalition support.

The law, which only applies to male divorce-refusers, was originally passed in 2018 as a temporary law designed to assist non-Israeli women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce, who are unable to have any kind of punitive sanctions imposed against their spouse.

The rabbinical courts in Israel are empowered to impose a variety of sanctions against divorce-refusers, 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 there are few effective tools for persuading a recalcitrant spouse to consent to a divorce.

THE RABBINICAL court of Tel Aviv. It has been said that rabbinical courts allow men to hold back consent to divorce their wives in order to extort the women into agreeing to unfair overall terms. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)THE RABBINICAL court of Tel Aviv. It has been said that rabbinical courts allow men to hold back consent to divorce their wives in order to extort the women into agreeing to unfair overall terms. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

In 2018, the Conference of European Rabbis, an umbrella body of European rabbis and rabbinical judges, requested that the Israeli rabbinical courts find a solution for cases of divorce recalcitrance involving Jews living in the Diaspora who are not Israeli nationals, resulting in the temporary legislation.

The law meant that Israel’s rabbinical courts took up cases of foreign Jewish men who were refusing to grant their wives a divorce in their country of origin, and who came to Israel for visits, and imposed sanctions on them.

The statute expired in July, however, and the government is seeking to turn it into permanent law.

According to the explanatory section of the government legislation, dozens of women have been freed from their recalcitrant husbands as a result of the law. Their efforts to terminate their marriage in their home countries foundered due to the absence of tools to convince the husband to grant a divorce.

President of the Conference of European Rabbis Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt insisted during the committee hearing that it was important to make the law permanent. He argued that if it remained merely a temporary law, some recalcitrant husbands might delay even longer giving a divorce to their wives in the hope that the law would not be renewed in the future.

Former MK Aliza Lavie, who proposed the law in 2018, supported the proposal to make the legislation permanent. She said that even though “there are a lot of things which need to be fixed in the rabbinical courts, anyone who frees an agunah [chained woman] is as if they repaired one of the walls of Jerusalem.”

MK Uri Maklev of the opposition haredi United Torah Judaism Party also praised the law, saying it had been very successful, and voted in favor of making it permanent.

Dr. Rachel Levmore, director of the Aguna and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency, said during the hearing that making the law permanent was an important step, and would also demonstrate that Israel is willing to help Jews around the world in situations of divorce refusal.

Dr. Susan Weiss of the Center for Women’s Justice, opposed turning the legislation into permanent law. Weiss said she opposed it in principle because of concerns about extending the authority of the rabbinical courts, “which do not take care of human rights.”

Weiss said that rabbinical courts have violated the right of travel of foreign nationals whose cases of divorce refusal it has taken up, and not given them a fair hearing.

The legislation was approved unanimously in committee for passage to the Knesset plenum for its second and third readings.