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Change must come — we will make it happen

There is something devastating about realising that those in official positions to help can’t even be bothered to show up when discussing agunot, writes Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll

    MK Aliza Lavie (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

    There is something surreal about sitting in the same place, at the same time of year, with the same people, to discuss the same problem, and where the only thing that has changed is the date.

    There is something crushing about hearing women tell their stories of being chained by their husbands, abandoned by the courts, and humiliated by the authorities.

    There is something devastating about realising that those in official positions to help — to solve problems, to work on behalf of the community — can’t even be bothered to show up.

    This week, MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) held her annual discussion in the Knesset committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women for International Agunah Day. The debate centred on halachic prenuptial agreements designed to prevent women being chained in Jewish marriage. Present were members of Knesset, experts on Jewish law, rabbinic court advocates, lawyers, activists, formerly chained women, and agunot, women who await their bill of divorce from a husband who refuses to give one, or who truly cannot.

    Notably — glaringly — absent was every single possible representative of the Israeli Rabbinate and the rabbinic courts, the very entities that maintain the circumstances that trap women (estimated in the thousands), as well as men (estimated in the hundreds), in marriages they do not want. The rabbinic bodies confirmed that they would attend, but did not show up. Nor did any MK from the Charedi parties, whose raison d’etre is to assure a Torah presence in public policy.

    Lavie’s goal is to require prenups as part of Israel’s Jewish marriage, with an eye to prevent get refusal and agunot. Until and unless there is systemic, halachic change in Jewish marriage and/or divorce, prenups are the best means of preventing people chained in Jewish marriage. Experts estimate that up to 90 per cent of get-refusal would be prevented by such agreements, both by changing communal perception of the issue, and via real legal protection.

    The discussion began with a historical overview of prenups previously used to protect Jewish women from becoming trapped in marriage for centuries. This concept is neither new nor antithetical to Jewish law, as some claim.

    While there are a number of halachic prenups available, they are not created equal. Kolech, an organisation that aims to further the status of women in the realm of Jewish law, is working with the Center for Women’s Justice and other organizations to collate the salient details of each version, to inform the public, and give each couple the means of making an educated decision when it comes time to choose one.

    Dr. Rachel Levmore co-author of one of the most prominent prenups, The Agreement for Mutual Respect, explained that simple ignorance, of how the prenup works and how signing one can protect both the given couple and the community at large, has been a real impediment to what should be widespread use.

    And there is true communal need. In one of the most powerful moments of the two-hour session, during which women whose lives have been devastated by get refusal recounted their painful stories, Yad La’Isha director Pnina Olmer read aloud the “Profile of a get-refuser” that she and her team of lawyers who represent mesuravot get in rabbinical court crafted in response to an oft asked question:

    “...A get refuser is a poor man, a rich man. He is religious or secular. He is an accountant who fled the the Rabbinical Court and disappeared, and a doctor who married a second wife and then a third, while keeping his first wife an agunah. He is a pilot who fled to Hong Kong, leaving his wife to raise ten children...He is an entrepreneur who fled and demanded $30 million for the divorce... he is a contractor, an engineer, a professor, a musician, a kashrut advisor, the son of a rabbi, the son of a rabbinic judge, a family law attorney…”

    All true stories, they show that no one is immune. As Lavie said, “Every woman who marries according to Jewish law is a potential agunah.”

    When establishment and rabbinic leaders don’t show up, we must show up. We must encourage couples to sign halachic prenups, (and those who are already married should sign postnups). We should push rabbis to require prenups at every wedding they perform, and demand that the rabbinic courts accept this halachic protection.

    Making the prenup a part of Jewish marriage and holding the religious courts accountable will go a long way to solving what is our collective problem, but these changes will only come when we utilise and demand them.

    Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and activist

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