A coalition to solve the agunah problem

It would behoove each MK to make a public statement regarding the need, and measures they suggest, to ensure that the status of the Jewish woman in Israel is secured.

Rompre les chaines du mariage (photo credit: avec l'aimable contribution de Rachel Levmore)
Rompre les chaines du mariage
(photo credit: avec l'aimable contribution de Rachel Levmore)
As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attempts to negotiate a coalition government, the actual thoughts and policies of the potential partners are uncovered for the public to see. As opposed to campaign promises and declarations, the points for which the competing parties really stand are determined in the process of give-and-take. The less important “principles” are put aside as the price for the prize of government. Even before reaching the negotiation table some are discarded, as their only function was campaign good-talk.
Leading up to the elections, a popular topic that crossed the lips of competing candidates was the exclusion of women in Israeli society, or in its more positive form – women’s empowerment. The number of female candidates on lists was strutted about alongside what were meant to be fine-sounding explanations by the ultra- Orthodox as to why their list is a men’s club.
We were reminded of the harassment of schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh as well as the inequity in the pay scale for women. On the flip side it was reported in the press that one candidate chose to be politically incorrect by calling for the dismantling of the Knesset’s Committee for the Advancement of Women. Notwithstanding, on the whole, all were in agreement that there was much to do in Israel to elevate women’s status and that their party was the one to do it.
If one goes past the lip service to the problem of women’s status and delves deeper into the principle of egalitarianism in rights as well as respect between the genders, one will find that a main root of the problematic situation in Israeli Jewish society is the inability of a woman to freely determine her personal status.
While a Jewish woman in Israel enjoys the freedom to choose to change her status from single to married, she cannot choose to change from married to divorced, meaning “remarriageable.” Since, in accordance with Jewish divorce law (which applies to all Jews in Israel according to the civil law) a divorce is possible only when the two spouses agree, either spouse can hold the other to the marriage indefinitely.
The necessity for the man’s consent to give the get, the Jewish writ of divorce, is biblically ordained, while the woman’s consent is necessary by rabbinic decree.
(This difference facilitates the resolving of the situation when a man is a victim of get-refusal.)
A woman who is a victim of get-refusal is known as a modern-day agunah. She is “chained” to her marriage for as long as the husband refuses to give her a get. He can name his price or simply say “no.”
WHILE IT is true that the Israeli rabbinical courts have legal jurisdiction over Jewish divorce, which in turn provides the rabbinic judges with powers to sanction recalcitrant husbands – powers of which their counterparts in the Diaspora can only dream – the system is plagued by tragedies and seemingly insoluble problems. It is not sufficient to demand of the rabbinical courts alone to resolve the agunah issue. That approach has not received the desired results.
The agunah problem is multi-faceted – involving rabbis, the civil family court, the rabbinical court, government ministries and committees, societal mores, individuals and the legislature. It can be solved by each of the aforementioned components first recognizing the problem and then cooperating in a coalition to bring about solutions.
Now is the time for each of the contenders to the formation of the next government of Israel to take the lead and to relate to the very core of the status of women in a Jewish-democratic state. Espousing progressive views on women’s rights should begin with the very basic – eradicating the agunah problem. Moreover, this should not be done quietly, at the negotiation table alone.
One of the newly elected MKs, Dr. Aliza Lavie, initiated an event marking Agunah Day together with ICAR (the International Coalition of Agunah Rights) taking place on Wednesday – just prior to “Agunah Day” which falls this year on the following day, February 21.
The basis for cooperation between our legislative body and the public in dealing with the agunah problem has thus been established. Similarly, the next step should be between the MKs and the soon-to-be-established government by including the elimination of this destructive phenomenon as part of the coalition’s efforts to better Israeli society.
This special day provides the opportunity for those who have the means to educate the society which they represent. It would behoove each MK to make a public statement regarding the need, and measures they suggest, to ensure that the status of the Jewish woman in Israel is secured so that she has the peace of mind that neither she nor her daughter will become an agunah.
The writer is a rabbinical court advocate; coordinator of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel and the Jewish Agency; author of Min’ee Einayich Medim’a on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal; and one of the authors of the prenuptial “Agreement for Mutual Respect”; and a member of ICAR.