A translation of an article published in Yediot magazine. Four women who experienced divorce refusal, share how their lives turned into nightmares.
Odelia suffered from physical and mental violence throughout her marriage, but has been unable to free herself from the marriage for ten years; Naama’s husband dragged her into enormous debt; Tali still can’t stop crying from the process she went through; Shimrit still bears the scars from the battle for freedom. Aviad Moshe, who tried to murder his wife Shira Isakov and refused to give her a get is not alone: thousands of women in Israel are considered agunot. Now four of them share how their lives turned into nightmares.
Odelia, 42, is raising seven children alone in southern Israel. She has been married for 20 years. For ten of those years, she has been trying to release herself from the marriage with the man she chose to marry.
“Every time our story is delayed under different claims,” she says. “First it’s because he wants to sell the house [before presenting a get], then it’s because suddenly he wants visitation rights. He was required to pay alimony and never paid. The rabbinical court says that, by the halakha, they cannot require him to present a get. I feel like I am subject to extreme financial violence that remains unacknowledged.”
Aviad Moshe’s refusal to give a get to Shira Isakov – whom he attempted to murder in front of their son – is a common practice in the aggressive relations men maintain with women. He is not the only one continuing to abuse the woman who married him: many women remain as agunot and do not gain their peace.
Odelia suffered through physical and mental violence as well as threats throughout her marriage. On numerous occasions, a restraining order was issued against her husband due to the violence. “So long as I don’t receive a get I am held hostage, a prisoner,” she explains. “The children also grow up to an abnormal reality. They have a father, but he doesn’t raise them. It’s truly a delay of justice. They are torturing me, not recognizing me as being denied of a get. This is exploitation and abuse at the hands of the man who, to this day, lives off my support.”
Odelia, who clarifies that the very fact that she is still married prevents her and her children from receiving the rights of single-parenthood, turned to the organization Mavoi Satum for assistance. “They immediately recognized that I am being denied a get. I am not yet too old, I could have still started a new life,” she says. “It’s a kind of abuse. I live under a raincloud for so many years and no one shares my cries for help. There are many women living my reality and it’s very sad. My husband continues to fight me, and meanwhile continues his normal life. He lives as a bachelor, does what he wants, and fills our children’s souls with disappointment.”
Naama is also held hostage by an abusive husband. She has been married and suffering for seven years. When the physical violence started, she decided she would not stay put and raise her children like that. She received a safety order, and a few days later her husband had already fled Israel and disappeared.
“I began proceedings in the Family Court, requests related to property, custody and visitation, but in order to get divorced there is no other option in Israel – I had to turn to the rabbinical court,” she shares. “When you get married you don’t think about these things. I wish young women getting married would understand the importance, what could happen. A month after the wedding, the husband could be involved in a car-crash and enter a coma, he could become psychotic and refuse to give a get. No one can guarantee you anything, and there must be an alternative solution in our country. Women can’t be imprisoned or held by a single man. It’s astonishing that in 2021 we are still in this situation, like in the days of slavery, where if the master does not free you or sell you to another master, you are not free.”
According to Naama, even looking at the halakhic laws, “a marriage is only valid if sexual relations are held. The husband must sleep at home, support his family. None of these things have been upheld in years. We have three children. I was afraid that he would hurt them after the beatings I received, but I knew that for the children it would be wrong for their father to disappear from their lives. I wanted him to see them in the presence of a third party. Despite that, after the first time he stopped seeing them.”
The troubles do not cease with the bonds preventing a woman denied a get from continuing with her life, meeting a new man and starting chapter 2. She finds herself battling all the authorities. “I don’t receive rights as a single-parent or divorced woman. I am holding endless battles,” she says. “He emptied the joint bank account and left me penniless. He cancelled checks towards the children’s preschools and the apartment, took loans, forged my signature, and put me in debt for hundreds of thousands of shekels. One day the execution office knocked at my door and demanded that I pay a huge debt to the bank, and that if not they have an order for chattel and will come to take whatever is necessary. Because I’m his wife, and we have joint accounts, even though he emptied them, because of our shared assets I can’t close the accounts. He has records with the execution office that are automatically connected to me.”
“It’s the same with Bituach Leumi (Israel’s Social Security agency): they send me an order of foreclosure because he hasn’t paid Bituach Leumi in a few years. It took a year-long battle with Bituach Leumi to explain to them that I’m an Aguna. With income tax, I don’t get any breaks. They are unable to comprehend what a woman who is refused a get is. When I need to register the children for school – it’s a saga. I wish there was a status for Aguna on the teudat zehut (Israeli ID), like there is a status for ‘divorced’. Every animal on the planet deserves its freedom. It is entirely unacceptable for women to be imprisoned.”
“It is important for awareness of Agunot to be raised,” she continues. “Get refusal is violence against women. Period. I haven’t conducted research, but as I see it most of the get refusers are power-hungry men. Usually there was financial, physical, verbal or mental violence involved. I suffered from mental violence from the beginning of the marriage. Only when it turned physical did my life wake me up. This was the limit. I knew that if I forgive him he will beat me again. Refusal and imprisonment of women in this manner, preventing them from continuing to live their lives, this is extreme violence against women.”
Suddenly You’re Mentally Ill
Attorney Orit Lahav, the director of Mavoi Satum, an organization which has been assisting Agunot and women who are denied of a get for the past 25 years, explains: “In Israel the legal way to get married and divorced is according to the Jewish halakha, which requires the man to divorce the woman of his own will, and if he does not want to [divorce her] she remains married to him on paper, sometimes until death. The meaning of this for her, aside from the feeling of imprisonment and loss of control over her life, is that she can’t enter a new relationship, she can’t marry and can’t bring children into the world, as these children would be considered ‘bastards’ and put on the Rabbinate’s blacklists. Men, mostly violent men, use this tactic of get refusal in order to extort their wives for more and more in return for a get. Sometimes men refuse to give a get for vengeance – in order to hurt the woman and to keep her alone forever. They know the implications of get refusal and use it against the women.”
To date, there are thousands of women in Israel who are Agunot or denied a get. According to the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, one out of every five women involved in divorce proceedings experiences get refusal. “The main problem is that as of now, the rabbinical courts are unwilling to use a systematic solution that would expropriate the power from the hands of the man and transfer it to the rabbinical courts,” Lahav explains. “For example, nullifying or annulling a marriage. Their unwillingness to implement a comprehensive solution, along with the legal requirement to marry and divorce within the confines of the Jewish religion, causes an unbearable reality for thousands of women – secular, religious, traditional and ultra-orthodox – who are imprisoned in a marital relationship which ended long ago, and are unable to continue their lives. The ex-husband, backed by the rabbinical courts and the national laws, can continue holding his wife ‘prisoner’ and to deny her of her most basic freedoms. A large portion of these women are victims of violence, and get refusal is the husband’s means to continue his violence, while in this means the violence is open and legal. It should be noted that even those who choose to wed in a civil marriage in order to ‘circumvent’ the Rabbinate, will also be required to go through the Rabbinate if they wish to divorce.”
“The rabbinical courts are full of very conservative rabbinical judges who maintain strict approaches concerning divorce, and this stringency is upheld at the expense of the women,” continues Lahav. “It is unsurprising that this is the situation in this male system, which is why we are attempting to advance the integration of women in the rabbinical courts, from the executive management to public representatives who will attend the sittings beside the rabbinical judges – and will constitute a voice for the adjudicated women in the rabbinical courts.”
Tali, 35 from northern Israel and a mother of four, was granted a get following years of battles. “I even had a divorce agreement, an agreement to bring about a get in a respectful fashion, signed in the presence of a mediator on behalf of the rabbinical court,” she describes. “I turned to the rabbinical court because a proper ultra-orthodox woman getting divorced feels that she is following the way of non-Jews if she turns to the Family Court. Despite the agreement, which had legal, halakhic and juridical validity, half a year later when we arrived to sign the divorce papers, they told me that the husband can still retract. They told him ‘you are not required to grant her a get, you can think about it’. That was when the saga of suffering began. I have never cried like I cried then.”
According to Tali, the agreement was nullified. “The children are also suffering. Just this week, an acquaintance of mine received a get, following nine years of battles. She gave up alimony and the apartment, so long as she could receive the get.”
Living on Hold
Shimrit is finally divorced. She tells, “I was married for twenty years. My family is traditional so I found it important to respect the marriage, but when it was obstructed I was ashamed. I felt like a failure. In the rabbinical court I told them everything necessary so as to receive a get. I wanted to end it quickly. I was 40, I could still have started chapter 2, to have more children. And what happened is that they just ignored me, did not see me at all.”
“For more than 13 years they were impervious and dragged their feet and I remained denied of a get,” she describes. “At that time my husband abandoned [us]. There was a constant threat from the execution office. There were occasions that I arrived at the sittings and the stenographer did not show. ‘Ma’am, Sir, open your calendars’, and they would delay the next sitting for an additional five months. For me, every second was living in anticipation. There was not a second that I didn’t feel like my heart was at ease or calm. I wanted to be emancipated from a difficult life and I could not break free. For years I paid lawyers as if I’m a criminal.”
“Women are murdered endlessly. We all ask ourselves ‘why didn’t she run away’. When I heard that Diana Raz was murdered I was shocked. What would a woman, who married at 20, do when she understood she made a mistake and married the wrong man? If she does not receive a get, she will lose her rights to be a mother. We can’t degrade women’s lives like this. I am divorced already, but with scars. I lost my faith in the courts. My life is ruined.”
In an effort to overcome the trauma and to assist the women, Mavoi Satum is advancing a number of bills, including a requirement for all couples to sign a pre-nuptial agreement; removal of matters related to divorce, such as alimony and property, from under the rabbinical courts’ jurisdiction to prevent exploitation in return for a get; nullifying the ban on private weddings; advancement of civil marriages; and integration of women in the rabbinical courts as public representatives.
“We have no doubt that the government will place this issue as its top priority, and if the public ceases to cooperate with the Rabbinate, we can completely eradicate this problem and bring about a world with no Agunot,” Lahav states. “This is not a predestined fate – this is a problem that can be solved, and we must advance the solutions.”
The phone number for Mavoi Satum is: 02-6712282