PM urges compromise on agunot bill

Activists protest bill that would expand rabbinic jurisdiction in divorce.

agunot 88 298 (photo credit: Illustrative)
agunot 88 298
(photo credit: Illustrative)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Sunday on religious and secular cabinet ministers to reach a compromise on legislation that would expand Rabbinic Court jurisdiction in divorce cases. While dozens of feminists demonstrated against the bill outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Olmert, speaking in the weekly cabinet meeting, called on Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor) and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) to work together with Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, a former member of Shinui. Olmert told them to reach a compromise that would be acceptable to both the Orthodox establishment and liberal legislators and women's activists. The bill, which would give the Rabbinic Courts wider jurisdiction in financial issues in divorce cases, was approved as a government bill by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation last week. Jewish Israelis are marry and divorce in Israel according to Orthodox Jewish law. According to Jewish law, a woman is not permitted to remarry unless her husband gives her a get (writ of divorce). If her husband is intransigent, the woman is called an aguna, meaning "chained." The Orthodox religious establishment wants the Rabbinic Courts to have the right to arbitrate on monetary matter in divorce cases, according to Jewish law. But women's rights groups, which view the Rabbinic Courts as chauvinist and prejudiced in favor of the husbands, see any widening of the courts' jurisdiction as necessarily discriminatory. Sunny Calev of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform Movement, said women had a subordinate status in Jewish law. "Ideas like equality before the law, freedom of speech and equal opportunity simply do not exist in Orthodox Jewish law," said Calev. "A woman's position is improved infinitely if her case is heard by a civil court or a court that rules according to civil, secular law." Reut Una-Tsameret, head of public activities for Mavoi Satum, an organization that aims to help women receive fair treatment in the Rabbinic Court system, said these courts often made the granting of a divorce writ [get] conditional on the woman's willingness to give up some of her financial rights. "These are benefits that she rightly deserves from her divorcee," she said. Una-Tsameret said Rabbinic Courts regularly threatened women with the loss of child support and alimony payments unless they agreed to receive a divorce writ according to the conditions set by the court. Rabbinic Courts Administration spokeswoman Efrat Orbach said the proposed legislation would simply maintain the status quo. "The Supreme Court recently overturned decades of precedent during which the Rabbinic Courts litigated in monetary matters connected with the divorce process, even after the husband gave his ex the divorce writ," Orbach said. "This bill simply anchors in law what has been common practice for a long time now."