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'Agunot' protest for the right to get a get
While many Israelis were trying on Purim costumes, about 30 women wrapped themselves in orange scarves that read, "For the agunot [anchored women] and women refused a get [religious divorce]," and chained themselves together on Sunday morning in front of Jerusalem's rabbinical court.
The annual rally to influence the rabbinical court to make use of its power to impose sanctions against husbands who refuse to accede to their wives' requests for a divorce was held in anticipation of Monday's Fast of Esther, which commemorates Queen Esther's plea for the support of the Jews of Shushan, the capital of Persia.
Organized by the Jerusalem-based International Coalition for Agunah Rights (ICAR) which includes over 25 groups including Emunah (the national religious women's organization), Hadassah, the American National Council of Jewish Women, and groups affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements the women gathered to protest the tyranny of the rabbinical courts, whose allegedly narrow interpretation of Jewish law has denied scores of women divorces, thereby preventing them from remarrying and bearing legitimate children.
"The situation at the moment is that we have a lot of women who are refused gets," said Lesley Sachs, chairwoman of ICAR, who estimated there are thousands of women across the country waiting over a year to be issued a get. Many are being blackmailed by their husbands, who insist their wives give up their alimony and other legal rights.
"Under all circumstances, a husband has to agree in order for a wife to get a get. A woman cannot get divorced, by Jewish law, if the husband does not physically give her a get," said Sachs.
"At the same time, men can get permission to marry another woman if a woman refuses to give a get to her husband. Not only that, he can have children with another woman. But any child that she has is a bastard for ten generations ahead. So, women who do not get a divorce can't have more children.
"The rabbinical courts today have the ability to impose sanctions against husbands who refuse a divorce. They can impose many sanctions, from taking away a driver's license to putting a husband in prison. But we feel they do not use these sanctions enough," she explained.
Batya Yieshpe, who moved to Israel from the FSU 25 years ago, knows the story only too well. Her husband has denied her a get for the past 13 years, and despite the existence of a police report indicating that he physically abused her the rabbinical court issued a mere recommendation to her husband to grant her a divorce.
"I only hope all of the security shelters in this country are as sealed as the institution of the rabbinical courts," said Yieshpe. "While it's very, very sad to count the number of women whose husbands refuse to give them a get, it's even more sad to count the number of graves of women who have been killed by their husbands," she said.
Currently being represented by Osnat Shalom, a lawyer for Yad L'Isha, the Max Morrison Legal Aid Center and Hot Line, Yieshpe is hopeful for the future.
"If not for Yad L'Isha, I would not be able to continue," said Yieshpe. "Until I got to this institution, I would stay in the house I was embarrassed about my situation, I felt helpless. But once I got there and found help, I was empowered to go forward with my case."
According to Susan Weiss, director of Yad L'Isha, which is currently representing over 100 women in a similar boat, "One of the things we get a lot of pleasure from is that the women who are going through this process are really empowered by us.
Even though they don't know when it will end, they feel like they have someone supporting them and being with them and guiding them through the process, which can be very difficult."
Indeed, Yieshpe was one of few women at the rally who was willing to be identified. Many wore masks in a demonstration of anonymity. "It's something that many women are ashamed of," explained Sachs. "We feel that we are their voices. We are fighting for them," she said.
"Every effort contributes and I think that we need an accumulation of efforts like this. We need to constantly engage the Beit Din [rabbinical court] until they realize that they have to come into the 21st century," added Weiss.
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