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Knesset Passes Law Imposing Sanctions on Get-Withholding Husbands

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The Knesset has passed a law that will expedite the process of imposing sanctions on husbands who refuse to give their wife a Jewish divorce.The Israeli Knesset has passed a bill that will initiate a process of imposing serious sanctions on husbands who have refused to give their wives a get (halachic document of divorce) once forty-five days have passed from the rabbinical court’s decision that the husband must do so.

Under the new law, if the husband continues to refuse his wife a get, the beit din is required to convene a hearing within the succeeding 45 days to deliberate the imposition of punitive sanctions, which could include preventing the husband from traveling abroad, seizing his driver’s license, and potentially even imprisonment. Once the rabbinical court has decided to impose sanctions, it would be required to hold a follow- up hearing within the following ninety days to determine if the husband has relented and granted the divorce; if they discover that he has not done so, they would then decide on the appropriateness of more severe sanctions. The new law would obligate the beit din to hold repeated hearings at regular intervals until the husband finally gives his wife a get.

Jewish law stipulates that a divorce can only take effect when a husband gives his wife a get voluntarily. The husband’s refusal to do so renders his wife legally unable to remarry; in the event that she defies halacha and does so anyway, children born of that union would be considered mamzerim, and they would only be allowed to marry Jews of the same halachic status.

If a man gives his wife a get solely due to outside pressure, Jewish law renders it invalid, and any children of a woman who remarries in such a situation are considered mamzerim.

“This is a real revolution,” declared MK Otniel Schneller of Kadima, a primary sponsor of the new law. “It will bring about a significant reduction in the phenomenon of men refusing to give their wives a bill of divorce.” Schneller went on to assert that “for the first time, the rabbinical courts will be forced to scrutinize every case wherein a man refuses to give his wife a divorce, until he finally consents to do so.”

Interestingly, a number of women’s rights groups in Israel have expressed opposition to the new law, claiming that it can actually diminish women’s rights. According to these groups, the law that was in effect until now required rabbinical courts to impose sanctions within thirty days of their ruling that the husband must give his wife a divorce. However, the batei din interpreted the law to mean that they had the option to decide whether to convene such a hearing, and to do so after the thirty-day period had elapsed, not within that time period.

“The new law will effectively triple the time it would take for the rabbinical court to hold a hearing,” asserted Bat-Sheva Sherman-Shani, director of the Yad L’Isha women’s rights group. “The repeated hearings required by the new law may actually weaken the position of these ‘chained women,’ as it would make them more hesitant to engage in alternative methods of pressure on their husbands, due to their newfound fear that the rabbinical court would penalize them for usurping its authority.” As a result, she said, these wives would be more likely to surrender to some of their husbands’ demands to ensure they will obtain their divorce.

But MK Schneller disputed the contention that the new law would have such an effect, stating that the original law explicitly required that a hearing must be held after a thirty-day period, not within that time frame – essentially an unlimited period. Thus, in Schneller’s opinion, it was rare for the rabbinical courts to even hold hearings on imposing sanctions, and rarer still for them to actually implement those sanctions. More importantly, noted Schneller, the new law obligates the husband to give his wife a get within 45 days of the initial ruling – a requirement that never existed until now. “The uniqueness and importance of this law is that the court can’t abandon the case until a get is given,” he said.

Batya Kehana Dror, the director of Mavoi Satum – a divorce reform advocacy group that worked with Schneller to formulate the bill – praised the new law as “an important milestone in the struggle for women’s rights in Israel , and for advancing equality between the sexes in matters of marriage and divorce. It will help reduce and even prevent the ongoing abuse and blackmail used against women and put an end to the red tape of the rabbinical courts regarding matters of divorce.”

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