Don't be fooled

Women might have to wait longer for sanctions hearings with new law.

Rabbinical Court 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbinical Court 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week, the Knesset passed a bill changing the sanctions law, calling it a "real revolution which will bring about a significant reduction in the phenomenon of men refusing to give their wives a divorce." If that's the case, then why were women's groups opposed?
Of all the women's organizations which were involved in this legislation, the vast majority opposed the bill; if not at first, then certainly once it became watered down by political considerations. We at Yad L'isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline opposed it. The Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar Ilan University – one of the law's initial architects – opposed it. World-renowned scholar and expert in family law Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari opposed it. The legislative branch of the Justice Department strongly opposed it. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. 
Why did so many women's advocacy groups resist a change that was ostensibly meant to help women?
Creative and corrective legislation is positive and welcome – Yad L'isha is often on the proposing end of such measures, and we have authored and lobbied for many bills. That said, legislation for the sake of legislation can even end up hurting those it's meant to protect. As the organization whose advocates are working "in the trenches," striving to release agunot and mesuravot get ['chained' women being denied a Jewish writ of divorce] by providing them with legal representation in the rabbinical courts, allow us to explain.
The "sanctions law" – as it is commonly known – was legislated in 1995. A joint effort of the rabbinical courts and the Ministry of Justice, it is a modern interpretation of a Jewish law which enables the rabbinical court and the community of a recalcitrant husband to cast him out if he refuses to grant his wife a get. The principle is that although in many cases Jewish law does not mandate forcing a man to give a get, the community can nonetheless draw away from him (the exact phrase used is "meni'at tova,"  meaning do him no favors). In modern times, this 'drawing away' was translated into revoking his driver's license or passport, or refusing him a work license.
Sanctions depended upon the severity of the ruling (the rabbinical courts can "recommend," "strongly recommend," "force" or "coerce" the divorce). But in cases where the rabbinical court ruled that he must be forced or coerced to give a get, the Sanctions Law enabled incarceration if he continued to refuse, even solitary confinement.
According to this original law, once the rabbinical court handed down a ruling in the wife's favor – no matter what word they used – after 30 days, they must hold a hearing to deliberate and must rule upon sanctions. Period.
So what needed changing?
Unfortunately, most of the rabbinical court judges do not agree with the modern interpretation of meni'at tova and, as such, were not initiating sanctions hearings as per the law. Even when petitioned to hold such hearings, they were unwilling to invoke sanctions if the language of the get-ruling was anything less than "forced" or "coerced." Simply put – many judges were not complying with the law.
The new bill was originally proposed to help women by forcing the judges to comply, mandating a time frame during which the judges must initiate sanctions hearings. But the new law changes the wording from "the judges will meet to discuss sanctions" to "the judges will convene a meeting to discuss sanctions" (hardly forceful) – it actually triples the amount of time during which the sanctions hearing must take place.
How so? The new law states that 45 days after a get-ruling, the rabbinical court must organize a get-giving ceremony. If the get isn't given, then 45 days later they must convene a hearing to deliberate sanctions, and they must reach a decision within 21 days of that. Should they decide against sanctions, they must hold another hearing, 45 days later, headed by only one rabbinical judge; if he is convinced of the appropriateness of sanctions, he must bring the matter to a tribunal within 15 days – and so on and so on, every 45 days.
The woman must now wait 90 days, only to hear what, from our vast experience, we know she would once have heard after 30: that without a "coercion" ruling, sanctions will not be imposed. Moreover, our vast experience indicates that each time she faces the judges, they will try to persuade her to "come around," to give up monetary rulings, child support and custody, or even to drop damages suits she may have filed in the civil courts. And unfortunately, from our vast experience, we also know that many women, weakened and victimized and humiliated and exhausted, will agree to this miscarriage of justice.
All the while, the judges will be so busy with these futile, repeated hearings that the already slow-moving wheels of an overworked system will work even less efficiently.
So many new obstacles are created by the new law - and yet the presenting problem still remains. Most judges will continue not to impose sanctions upon the husband on anything short of a "forced" or a "coerced" ruling. Only now, the hearing to prove why he should be "coerced" will only be later in coming.
This is why women's groups opposed the change to the sanctions law. Not because the old law was good, but because the new one is worse.
We will continue to partner with lawmakers in the Knesset to promote true corrective legislation: laws that address the root of aginut, laws that remove child-custody, housing or property rights from being used as blackmail tools in exchange for the get, and laws that truly enforce and mete out justice.
Chained women – indeed, Israeli society – deserve no less.