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Israel unveils proposals to jail foreign national Jews who refuse to divorce their wives

Non-Israeli Jews could also be blocked from leaving the country under the plans

    Rabbi Eliyahu Maimon, head of the Rabbinical Court's Division for Agunot, at the Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem last year
    Rabbi Eliyahu Maimon, head of the Rabbinical Court's Division for Agunot, at the Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem last year (Photo: Flash90)

    Foreign national Jews could be jailed or prevented from leaving Israel under proposals to grant sweeping new powers to Israel’s rabbinical courts.

    If a bill working its way through the Knesset becomes law, the religious courts would have powers to punish Jewish men from other countries who refuse to grant their wives a get.

    Israel’s government said it was designed to assist Jewish women – known as agunot, literally “chained women” – who are stuck in marriages against their will because their husbands do not agrees to a divorce.

    A religious marriage cannot be dissolved under Jewish law until the man consents to a get.

    But concerns were raised over the bill’s proposal to apply to all Jews around the world, irrespective of whether they have a connection to Israel.

    “The fact that Israel is the state of the Jewish people doesn’t necessarily justify asserting such exceptional power, and it’s doubtful Diaspora Jews would look kindly on being subordinated to Israel’s judicial authorities just because they are Jews,” said Celia Wasserstein Fassberg, a professor in Hebrew University’s law school, in a position paper published by Haaretz.

    Israel’s rabbinical courts currently do have the authority to handle divorces of Jews who are not citizens, but only if one party in the marriage has a connection to Israel – such as having lived in the country for a period before starting divorce proceedings.

    The Knesset bill would broaden this power by allowing the courts to hear divorce cases for any Jew, anywhere in the world, if there is a “real fear” that a get cannot be obtained at the couple’s last country of residence.

    Last month an unnamed Argentine Jewish man was stopped at Ben Gurion International Airport and prevented from returning to Buenos Aires after his estranged wife petitioned to the rabbinical court in Israel.

    The couple had divorced under civil law in Argentina but the husband had refused to grant her a get to dissolve their religious union, the Times of Israel reported.

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