An Uneasy Status Quo (Extract)

An Israeli can shop on Shabbat and eat bread in a restaurant on Passover. But when getting married or divorced, the Chief Rabbinate still rules with a mighty hand.

02hared (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract of an article in Issue 2, May 12, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Rachel Avraham was a 3-year-old-immigrant from Yemen when the second Knesset passed a law that would change the course of her life. Innocuously titled, "The Rabbinic Courts (Marriage and Divorce) Law of 1953," the act granted exclusive jurisdiction over personal status (chiefly issues of marriage and divorce) to the religious courts of the Chief Rabbinate, an institution established for that very purpose by the British Mandatory government in 1921. Avraham grew up in the northern town of Binyamina, between Tel Aviv and Haifa. She was 19 when she married a bank clerk friend of her older brother. The marriage soon soured. Avraham says she suffered economic and physical abuse and her husband's rage because she gave birth to five girls and only one son. After the birth of her fourth child (a girl), she filed for divorce at the Rabbinic District Court in Ashdod to arrange a get, or religious bill of divorcement. But the religious court repeatedly ordered Avraham to return to her husband. An Orthodox Jew, she obeyed and gave birth to two more daughters. During the last pregnancy, Avraham asked the ultrasound technician not to tell her husband the baby's sex, "so I would have a few months of quiet." But when the girl was born, a nurse had to alert hospital security to restrain her enraged husband. At age 36, Avraham finally decided to move out and left home with her six children and "just the shirts on our backs, which is what he let me take." She used her last few shekels to pay for a taxi to her parents' home, hoping to obtain a divorce and rebuild her life. Based on ancient gender prohibitions and identities and derived from a single line in the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 24:1), the state-backed get gives the man the upper hand. According to Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law, a man cannot be coerced to give a get which must be given of his own free will. But Avraham's husband refused to give her a get; for the next 19 years, she was bounced between various rabbinic court panels that alternated in hearing her case. Avraham was only formally divorced in 2006, when a get that her husband had given her six years earlier, but had been canceled by another religious court (after it discovered that at one time she appealed to the civil courts for relief) was suddenly deemed valid by yet another court. Last year, assisted by Jerusalem matrimonial lawyer Susan Weiss, founder of the Center for Justice for Women, a non-profit women's rights advocacy group in Jerusalem, Avraham sued the Justice Ministry, which bears legal responsibility for the state's religious courts, and her ex-husband for 1 million shekels (approximately $286,000) in damages for the wasted years and alleged judicial missteps. No trial date has been set yet. Weiss, founder of the Center, argues that turning a Jewish husband's religious right to withhold a divorce into a civil wrong that can harm his wife makes get-refusal a "perfect tort"- a wrongful act that causes injury, for which the law must award monetary damages. Some 25 such cases have been filed since 2000. The majority of cases were closed with prejudice, meaning they cannot be reopened, in exchange for receiving the get. Of the three cases which came to court, one ultra-Orthodox woman petitioner was awarded $100,000 (then worth 425,000 shekels) by Jerusalem Family Court Judge Menahem Hacohen and and in 2006 Judge Tzvi Weitzman ordered the estate of a man to pay his estranged wife 711,000 shekels in damages for withholding a get for 29 years. (He died without giving one.) In the third case, a family court judge denied a secular woman's petition for damages after she was denied a get for 26 years; the woman is considering an appeal. "They trampled on my human rights and ruined my life," Avraham tells The Jerusalem Report one March morning. Such lawsuits are one of the ways in which Israelis are challenging the faith-based legislation that took root here when the state was founded. In another example, last March, just weeks before the Passover holiday, Jerusalem Municipal Court Judge Tamar Bat-Asher Tzaban, a modern-Orthodox Jew, acquitted four restaurant owners who had served hametz (bread and other leavened products) during Passover 2007, in violation of the Knesset's 1986 Festival of Matzoth law, which bans the public display and sale of hametz during Passover in Jewish neighborhoods. The judge ruled that a restaurant was not a public space. It's doubtful whether things like Avraham's nightmare or fights over selling bread on Passover is what the pragmatic pre-state politician, David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel's first prime minister, had in mind when he and other founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 and created that peculiar hybrid entity that is Israel: a secular, liberal and Western-style state guaranteeing equal democratic freedoms to all inhabitants that is also the state of a particular religious group (the Jews) and is committed to maintaining some religious character. Ben-Gurion sought broad Jewish support for the new state and believed that the religiously observant, whom he saw as a dying breed, would be "quieter" and more politically acquiescent as government coalition partners than other political groups, explains Bar-Ilan University sociology Prof. Menahem Friedman, an expert on the ultra-Orthodox. The new state was imbued with symbols from the ancient Jewish past. The modern legislative body, for example, was called the Knesset, a name chosen for its associations with Haknesset Hagdola, the Great Assembly, which was established in the 5th century BCE when the Jews returned to the Land from exile in Babylonia. Like the Assembly of yore, the Knesset has 120 members and the seats in the main chamber are arranged in the shape of the seven-branched menorah, also the state official emblem. Of more practical import, early leaders promised the religious parties to anchor some dominant cultural/religious Jewish issues in law. These assurances morphed into what became known as the "status quo" - an accommodation based on four principles: exclusive religious court jurisdiction on personal status; public and official observance of the Sabbath; kosher food in government institutions; and autonomy for religious schools. As the first defense minister, Ben-Gurion also issued a small number of military deferments to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, in order to revitalize Jewish centers of learning wiped out after the European Holocaust. Sixty years later, says Friedman, "If Ben-Gurion came out of his grave today, he would run back" as he faced the "very, very complicated picture" of clashing worldviews and a country still struggling to define itself. Ben-Gurion plainly erred when he predicted that religion would have no appeal for modern Israelis Jews. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics' data for 2007, only 45 percent of Israel's Jews define themselves as "secular," while the rest classify themselves as maintaining religious observance, which ranges from ultra-Orthodox (8 percent) to "traditional" (20 percent). Reflecting changing demographics and the growth of the religious parties that often command a decisive role in coalition politics, the "promises" became laws, stimulating other faith-based legislation that incorporates religion into state, giving the country a theocratic tinge and plunging it into a long-running religious-secular culture war. Nor did Israel ever draft a constitution, a principle on which the United Nation's General Assembly conditioned the establishment of the new state. The religious parties objected to the existence of a document, which would act as a "higher law" than the Torah and Talmud, and the constitution never happened. Ben-Gurion joined their campaign against the constitution for separate political reasons. But changing times and values, Friedman says, have caused many Israelis to simply ignore faith-based legislation as "irrelevant to their lives." The majority of Israelis do battle only when perceived religious encroachment threatens their neighborhood lifestyle. Today, he says, an Israeli can happily travel on the Sabbath to an open shopping mall; eat pork on Yom Kippur; and break bread at the Passover Seder. They can also live with a woman (or a man) who does not have a divorce or not wed altogether. "Who cares?" Friedman asks rhetorically. Attorney Irit Rosenblum, founder of New Family, an advocacy group for non- traditional families not accepted by the Chief Rabbinate, which serves the needs of some 15,000 people, says there are "tens of thousands" of such groupings already in existence, including single-sex partnerships and couples who choose not to wed but rather have legal unions. Paradoxically, Friedman says, faith-based laws that only impact on observant Jews have sharpened the divisions between the once-allied religious parties of the Zionist modern-Orthodox and non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox who currently control the Chief Rabbinate. For example, in 2006, it was novelist Naomi Ragen, who defines herself as a modern-Orthodox woman who sued the quasi-governmental Egged bus company for establishing a gender-segregated service for the ultra-Orthodox that places women at the back of the bus. Attorney Weiss points out that 62 percent of the plaintiffs in tort cases have been filed by religious women. Bar-Ilan political scientist Asher Cohen agrees that secular Israelis may ignore rabbinic laws in their private lives. But in the public sphere, he insists, they do care. Cohen, co-author of "Israel and the Politics of Jewish Identity, the Secular-Religious Impasse," written with Bernard Susser (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) says secular and some modern Orthodox citizens have "gone to the barricades on big issues," such as conversion, military deferments for yeshiva students and state-funding for religious education, and have fought the religious monopoly over personal status. Citing examples, he notes the success of the secular, anti-clerical Shinui political party which won 15 Knesset seats in 2003; the establishment of the Tal Commission, which began in 1999 to end blanket military deferments for the ultra-Orthodox; the large, varied lobby that fights religious coercion in the Knesset, the courts, and the municipalities; and the determination of some Knesset members to finally have a constitution. And the municipalities, he notes, have, in fact, thwarted the status quo. The city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa recognizes legal unions between unwed couples and same-sex partners for the purpose of receiving parking stickers and city tax credits formally reserved for married couples. Rosenblum says her organization has issued some one thousand "partnership domestic cards," which are the size of credit cards; couples show these cards as proof of being joined in union for various bureaucratic and legal issues. And Beersheba recently annouced plans to devise a streamlined conversion program for the many Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union (FSU) who have settled there. In fact, the Russian immigration marks one of the strongest challenges to the religious status quo. Some 300,000 FSU immigrants, who came here under the 1951 Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone with a single Jewish grandparent, are not recognized as Jews according to Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law and are often barred from marrying here because Israel has no option for civil marriage and few are able to meet the Rabbinate's rigorous requirements for conversion. Extract of an article in Issue 2, May 12, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.