JERUSALEM — "Past events." The expression seems neutral, factual, distant. But for S., the words — as they appear in the religious divorce documents granted her by the rabbinical court in Jerusalem — are excruciating. The "past events" refer to violence, specifically sexual, of which the young Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) woman accused her husband. The woman was his victim until their official separation in February 2016.

Jewish law holds that a husband's consent is necessary for the divorce to proceed, even if the court can compel him to grant it, under threat of imprisonment. In the case of S., whose identity is protected, her husband only agreed to offer consent on one condition that was approved by the rabbinical court: His wife had to withdraw all criminal complaints she had filed against him. Her freedom in exchange for immunity for a violent man.

The victim claims that the rabbi who presided over the court strongly encouraged both her and her lawyer at the time not to change a single term of the agreement, not to question it. The judges also asked that she end the parallel civil divorce proceedings, invoking the superiority of Halakha (Jewish law).

S., 30, is a mother to two children. She lives in a city in the middle of Israel. It's impossible to be more specific, because she's afraid of backlash in her very conservative community. After her divorce, she took refuge at her mother's house. She worked as a psychotherapist for children with learning disabilities.

S. agreed to the non-disclosure agreement that the court imposed because her priority was to finally break the chains that tied her to her ex-husband — a "sick man," in her words. But when the NGO Mavoi Satum learned about the conditions of her separation, the team encouraged S. to contest the rabbis strategy.

Lead weight

Mavoi Satum has fought for years to defend the rights of women whose husbands refuse to divorce them. And because there's a religious monopoly on the procedure — as is also the case for marriage and conversion to Judaism — the problem isn't limited to ultra-Orthodox couples. Civil courts, in the end, only decide child custody and division of property.

All in all, the NGO handles about 200 cases, for both non-religious people and haredim (Haredi people). Batya Kahana-Dror, the director of Mavoi Satum, leads the fight both in court and in the political arena, trying to convince politicians to change the legislation. Recently, she announced her candidacy for minister of justice, with the goal of becoming the director general of Rabbinical Courts and changing the system from the inside out.

At a Mavoi Satum protest last year — Photo: Mavoi Satum FB

A lawyer by trade, Kahana-Dror wants to simultaneously fight for women's rights and attack the lead weight that continues to hang heavy in Haredi communities on the subject of intrafamilial violence or rape. Already, though, these communities have started to slowly open over the past few years, the NGO director believes.

"Society as a whole is changing and becoming more liberal," she says. "The problem comes from the fact that certain religious courts are radicalizing, since they believe in the longevity of Jewish law and that of the traditional family. They don't understand anything about modern society."

Chained women

S.'s court-certified divorce papers are a case in point, according to Kahana-Dror. Which is why the lawyer decided to contest them by approaching the general prosecutor and demanding that he open an inquest against the judges.

"What [the rabbinical court] did was completely illegal and goes against the penal code in criminal matters," she explains. "The young woman never reported the domestic violence to the police because she was so scared. She was afraid of becoming an agunah" — a 'chained woman,' meaning a wife whose husband refuses to divorce them.

In November 2016, in a directive signifying a clear policy shift, state prosecutor Shaï Nitzan threatened to imprison men who obstruct divorce proceedings. "An individual who refuses to agree to a divorce harms the fundamental liberties and rights of his wife, such as her right to remarry, her right to have children that aren't considered bastards," the order reads.

Observers are already looking at a particular case where the directive could apply. For 17 years, even though he has been incarcerated, Zvia Gordetsky's husband has refused to divorce her, despite a court order to do so. Because of that, he could now face additional criminal proceedings.

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