Shas's opposition delays divorce bill

Last-minute demands this week by Shas has delayed proposed divorce legislation that legal experts said would harm women's legal standing. The bill is now not expected to be considered by the Ministerial Law Committee until the Knesset's winter session, which begins after the High Holy Days. If the legislation becomes law, it give rabbinic courts continued jurisdiction over divorce cases. This would mean that any disputes about the monetary aspects of a divorce agreement reached in a rabbinic court that arose after giving the get (divorce writ) would be decided in the same rabbinic court. Neither side would have recourse to civil courts. Justice Minister Haim Ramon planned to push the bill through the ministerial committee to satisfy Shas and other haredi parties. But Shas chairman Eli Yishai wanted more. He opposed the present wording of the bill, saying it did not satisfy conditions specified in the coalition agreement between Kadima and Shas. Yishai demanded that rabbinic courts be granted "original jurisdiction" over monetary matters between two consenting sides. This means that in monetary disputes in which both sides - the plaintiff and the respondent - agree to have their case heard in a rabbinic court, the decision could be enforced by the rabbinic court without resorting to a civil court. According to the bill's current language, the rabbinic courts only act as arbitrators. This means their decisions need to be upheld by a civil court before they can be enforced. Yishai's unexpected opposition has provided women's advocacy groups with additional time to lobby against the bill. Legal experts say the bill would allow one of the parties in a divorce, usually the husband - whose standing is stronger in rabbinic courts than in civil courts - to force the other side to complete the entire divorce process, including monetary matters, in rabbinic court. Dov L. Frimer, adjunct professor of family law at Hebrew University and senior partner of Frimer Gelman Shilo and Co., said the bill was designed to provide a formal legal basis for the continued jurisdiction of rabbinic courts as it existed prior to the Supreme Court's decision in April known as "Sima Amir." In the Sima Amir case, a panel headed by Justice Ayala Procaccia ruled that rabbinic courts, as statutory bodies with clearly defined functions, could not both approve divorce agreements and arbitrate monetary disputes under the agreements, even when both parties agreed to the arbitration. Legal experts said Procaccia had a hidden agenda - to stop rabbinic courts from forcing one side in a divorce case - usually the woman - to agree to resolve monetary issues in the rabbinic court. Procaccia was concerned, the experts said, that one party could threaten to block the giving of the get unless the other side agreed to argue their case in the rabbinic court. Rabbinic courts supported this demand even in cases where reconciliation was impossible and granting a get was obligatory - such as in instances of infidelity or domestic violence. Since the demand to resolve disputes in a rabbinic court was always deemed "reasonable" by the rabbinic court, it was always upheld. As Frimer puts it, "That practice has enabled the rabbinic court to use the get as leverage to acquire continuing jurisdiction by compelling one party or the other to 'consent' to future rabbinic court authority." "While this legal reality, as it existed prior to Sima Amir, was neither designed to nor intended to discriminate against one gender or another, there can be little doubt that in practice - in light of contemporary economic and social reality where the man is the stronger economic partner - it has and will in the future have a greater negative effect on women than on men," he said. Shimon Ya'acobi, legal adviser to the rabbinic courts, said the proposed legislation would not change the status quo. "Rabbinic courts have enjoyed continued jurisdiction for decades," he said. "The Supreme Court opposes continued jurisdiction for the rabbinic courts because it is not anchored in law. So we decided to acquiesce to the Supreme Court and pass the needed legislation." Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, director of Bar-Ilan University's Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women, together with the Coalition For Aguna Rights, has led an unsuccessful campaign to torpedo the bill, with the support of a religious law expert in the Justice Ministry - Peretz Segal.