Till 'get' do us part

Divorce in Israel declined slightly in 2005, but the process is as grueling as ever.

wedding kiss 88 (photo credit: )
wedding kiss 88
(photo credit: )
On paper, the statistic is encouraging: the number of divorces in Israel declined ever so slightly in 2005 - by about 2 percent, according to a recent report from the rabbinate. Perhaps, one could hope, couples are at last making better choices about their life partners. Maybe, would-be cupids would say, more love is in the air. Unfortunately, a closer inspection of the figures brings home some disappointing realities. Despite the slight decrease in a trend that has been steady for a long time, one in three marriages still ends in divorce. Some experts even say that the latest statistics are deceiving. "First of all, they include every community, even the Arab and Ultra-Orthodox groups who are less likely to separate because of their religious observance," says Dr. Yoram Fay, a divorce lawyer in Tel Aviv who holds a doctoral degree in the psychology of law. Additionally, explains Fay, divorce is an expensive proposition, and many people who either want to divorce or already live "mentally" divorced cannot afford to formalize it in writing. This might explain why the number of divorces skyrocketed in more affluent communities, such as Caesarea and Kfar Shmaryahu, but decreased by over 7% in the city of Tel Aviv. On the other hand, adds Fay, some couples who are happily married get divorced on paper so they can benefit from single-parent aid from the state. "Sometimes they see it as the only way to make ends meet," says Fay, "and because they don't have to pay for custody battles or separate homes, a divorce makes their income higher, not lower." And although court detectives try to catch couples who have falsely divorced, many fall through the cracks. Dr. Riki Rossman, a marriage counselor and sexual therapist who has been in the field for over 25 years, says the problems experienced by couples today have changed little despite major cultural shifts. "Communication is still the underlying problem between people, not the economy, sex, feminism or even religion," she says, and points out that lower divorce rates may indicate fewer marriages, and that many couples wait longer than in the past to marry. However, she caveats this with a reminder that the measure of a person's readiness to marry is mental and not chronological. Age in years often has little connection to maturity, she notes. "I don't think people are any happier or unhappier today than they used to be," explains Rossman, "but they are more open to seeking help and there is less of a stigma associated with therapy than in the past, which leads to better communication and understanding." Rossman adds that some couples who are emotionally detached do not officially divorce because of children or finances, and this may also be reflected in the lower numbers reported for 2005. WHAT MAKES divorce expensive? Nothing, if the couple is logical and in agreement - but this is rarely the case. And the emotional battle couples often wage over custody of the children and alimony payments significantly augments the lawyer fees, not to mention the costs of splitting assets and paying for a home as a single parent rather than as a couple. Yet, despite a number of cases involving women who have been refused a get, or divorce decrees, by their husbands, Fay says that the Jewish divorce laws in Israel support women more than men. "The best thing for an Israeli woman is to marry, have two kids and then divorce," says Fay as he sips his morning coffee from an office overlooking the central Tel Aviv army base. "This improves her finances considerably," he jokes. Not unlike many other countries, Israel automatically grants custody of children under six years of age to the mother and upholds a unilateral child support system in which the father - no matter what his financial situation may be - must provide for his children. Both the so-called "tender years" clause and the alimony laws were implemented at a time when women were largely homemakers and men were the principal breadwinners. Things have changed, but the laws have yet to adjust. Today, the vast majority of women work, and in some cases, they earn more money than their husbands. Women also make up at least half of the first-year students in law and medical school, and are often successful managers in banks, law firms, advertising agencies and media outlets. Nevertheless, the father is still solely responsible for the children financially and ordered to pay child support. Furthermore, if he wants custody of his young children, he must prove in court that his wife is irresponsible or unfit to raise the children, and this is difficult to do. "What are we, alimony slaves and money machines? Are we prisoners who no longer have the right to see our own flesh and blood outside of visitation hours?" asks Gil Ronen, the chairman of Hakol Hagavri, a pro-men's rights, pro-family advocacy group, who is up in arms about the unfair halachic laws in Israel. According to Fay, it is the middle class men who suffer the most from the current divorce laws, which might be why Ronen and many other fathers are so upset about the paradoxical feminist outcry for equal rights that seems to dissipate as soon as men are ordered to pay for their children without the privilege of raising them. "The poor men are ordered to pay alimony, but if they cannot do so then the state pays it for them," says Fay. "The rich men can pay alimony and re-build their lives, but the middle-class men with just enough have to pay alimony, and cannot then afford to start over themselves." But as far as the tender years clause is concerned, Fay claims that in most cases where the man wants custody of the children, it is for manipulation purposes rather than out of genuine concern for their welfare. "People sometimes assume that if they have the children, they will get more benefits, but often it is more expensive to raise the children and have them with you than to pay alimony," he says. "And in some cases, the children turn into a bargaining chip that the couple can use to hurt each other." DESPITE THE fact that the religious laws hold men financially responsible, many women see them as chauvinistic. Although a man must not, according to Halacha, withhold a divorce from his wife, in practice it is very difficult to force a man to consent to granting a divorce. Ultimately, he is in charge, and if he decides not to grant his wife's release out of jealousy or greed, she can neither re-marry nor take half of the assets. In one recent case, Rachel Avraham, a religiously observant and abused mother, tried unsuccessfully for 19 years to get a divorce. "Discrimination against women is built into the divorce system. You are in the hands of your husband. If he wants, he'll give you a get and if he wants, he'll retract the get. In order to appease the husband, women are required to pay, and waive [rights to] property and alimony. The court was on my husband's side and the dayanim [rabbinic court judges] gave him the legitimacy to abuse me more and more," Avraham recently told Ha'aretz after the case was settled. Another problem women often run into is that separation is not considered grounds for divorce, and past abuse is difficult to prove after the fact. Women who leave an abusive home may not be able to substantiate their claims in court. Furthermore, women are sometimes coerced into accepting considerable monetary concessions in order to get a divorce on their husband's terms. According to Rivka Lubitz, a rabbinic court lawyer who works for the Center for Women's Justice and represented Avraham, there are currently 13 other cases in which the legitimacy of the get is in question, but she advises women in this situation to wait for the dayanim to rule rather than make an immediate appeal to the High Court of Justice. "The dayanim have unlimited power. The moment you marry you become a prisoner either of your husband or of the rabbinic court," she says. Two women who are currently waiting for the finalization of their divorces refused to speak to The Jerusalem Post about their situation for fear of not being granted their divorces. They both feel they are at the mercy of their husbands, and that the law is on his side, not theirs. ONE RECENT development in Israel adopted from the US involves the use of mediators to try and curb the couples' emotions and help each partner give a balanced version of their story in court. Rossman, who also sometimes mediates in courtroom settings, says that in a small number of cases, the mediation process actually brings couples closer together and they decide against divorce. "People often don't know how to take responsibility for their relationships, and they do not know what to expect from marriage or what they want as individuals," says Rossman. "So when they begin therapy, these things are clarified and they can often find solutions to their problems, no matter what they are." One anonymous couple in Haifa says that counseling saved their marriage because it taught them how to fight. They learned how to talk to each other and express themselves as individuals in a respectful and productive manner rather than losing control of their emotions, which in the past had only led to further anger and frustration. But not every couple is willing to try therapy, and some know from the start that they do not really want to marry but concede to it because of insecurity or social pressure. According to Fay, most of the couples who walk into his office divorce because of the husband's repeated infidelity, financial trouble or because one member of the couple has become newly religious. In one case, a couple married for over 10 years is now divorcing because of the husband's recent propensity for deviant sex, a habit his wife is unwilling to accept. "I asked him why it took him 10 years to understand his desires, and he says he knew for a long time, but he didn't know how to face it or how to walk away. Now there are two children in the middle, and his wife thinks he's crazy," says Fay. "I advise people who are thinking about getting married to ask themselves what they expect out of marriage and what they want for themselves before taking that step. It will save them a lot of money and heartache in the future." Rossman, who also hears her share of problems, says most of the time the excuses couples find for not being able to work out their marriage are symptoms of communication difficulties rather than real causes for separation. However, in cases where couples do decide to divorce and they have children, Rossman recommends therapy for separation, too. "People who do not have a happy marriage and do not understand how to live peacefully together often do not know how to divorce either," says Rossman. She adds that most of the time people who are not getting along put their children in the middle, one of the worst tragedies for everyone involved. Rossman says therapy can help avoid battles over custody and ease the pain of separation by helping people understand each other better and teaching them how to move on with their lives. "People not only need help putting their marriages back together," she says, "they also need help taking them apart."