Middle East


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

In Israel, Jews hoping for a divorce have one option the rabbinical court that rules by ancient Jewish law. But women's rights groups say the system is unfair.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro tells one woman's story.

Ms. RAMIT ALON: I got married 16, almost 17 years ago. And we had some problems as a couple and four-and-a-half years ago, I left. I took my kids and just ran away.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ramit Alon is now 40. At the time of her separation, she was living in an Orthodox community with her husband and three children.

Ms. ALON: I was really optimistic. I thought that after I leave, it will take some months and then I could get divorced and start again, a new life. But it's not over.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israel has a singular system when it comes to matters of family law. For Jews, the religious or rabbinical court is the only one able to grant a divorce. The court rules according to Jewish law - a system that has been in place for thousands of years, and it's run exclusively by ultra-Orthodox male rabbis. According to Jewish law, a man has to agree to grant the divorce of his own free will before the legal separation can proceed.

Ms. SUSAN WEISS (Center for Women's Justice in Israel): If he's incapacitated, if he's abusive, if he committed adultery, it really doesn't matter. If he doesn't say yes, you're stuck.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Susan Weiss runs the Center for Women's Justice in Israel.

Ms. WEISS: We had a client whose husband tried to kill himself, he was in a vegetative state. She can't get divorced. Those are very extreme cases. But when you have a man who's alive and well and you know where he is, but simply refuses to give his wife a divorce, she is stuck.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which is where Ramit Alon finds herself. Her husband doesn't want to divorce her, but she can't just decide to go and live with another man and bear his children, because under Jewish law, the children of the new union will be considered bastards.

Ms. ALON: I can't meet someone and marry him and have kids. If I will have new kids before I got my divorce, they won't be able to marry here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Susan Weiss says the stigma is carried for generations.

Ms. WEISS: Very few women want to be in the position where their kids are considered mamzerum, or bastards. The stigma is really great and the stigma is so bad that it goes forever. In other words, this person who's stigmatized -his children are stigmatized, his grandchildren are stigmatized, everyone is stigmatized.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israel was founded as a Jewish state but also a democratic, modern one. Women's groups say it's issues like this that underscore the inherent contradiction between religious traditionalism and contemporary civil society. Susan Weiss says nowhere is this more strikingly illustrated than in the so-called race to the courthouse.

Ms. WEISS: When you get divorced, you have to decide issues of custody, you have to decide issues of marital property, you have to decide issues of visitation rights. All sorts of matters that are ancillary to the issue of divorce.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Israel, there are two courts that have jurisdiction over these matters, the rabbinical court and the civil or family court. What determines which court gets to decide on these critical issues is the time the court case is filed. What has developed is a race that can sometimes come down to a matter of minutes. Susan Weiss.

Ms. WEISS: If you're a woman, you want to race to the family court, because you want the family court deciding how much child support your husband pays for the kids or if he owes you alimony. And men usually run to the rabbinic courts because they have a tactical advantage in the rabbinic courts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Women's groups say its a schizophrenic system that doesn't work. The head of the rabbinical courts, though, disputes these complaints. In an interview with NPR, Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan says it's important that Jewish law be the highest in the land.

Mr. ELIYAHU BEN-DAHAN (Chief Rabbi): (Through translator) You have to understand, when the state of Israel was created, Jews came here from all over the world. And the only thing that could unite them was to create one Jewish legal authority that would combine all the traditions and make everybody into one people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he denies that religious courts discriminate against women.

Mr. BEN-DAHAN: (Through translator) Despite the fact that Jewish law was established thousands of years ago, we try to take those ancient principles and bring them into the modern world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He notes that religious courts have jailed some men who have refused to give their wives the get or bill of divorce. But that's the exception rather than the rule. It's been almost five years and Ramit Alon is still waiting for her divorce. She's even sued her husband for damages in an effort to pressure him. The rabbinical court, though, has ruled it's an unfair tactic because it means he's not granting a divorce of his own free will, as Jewish law demands.

Ms. ALON: It's really hard surviving this way, really.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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