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Shine a Light: Advancing Progressive Values in Israel this Hanukkah. Night 5—Divorce

About The Author

Chelsea Feuchs

Chelsea Feuchs is the Communications and Social Media Associate for ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. After studying for a year in Israel as a Dorot Fellow, she now works and lives in New York City.

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This Hanukkah, ARZA is working to shine a light on several challenges facing progressive Judaism in Israel. We do so with the intention to generate greater understanding, to increase the investment of Reform Jews in the Jewish State, and to center a connection to Israel in our communities. Each night for eight nights, check in with us to learn more about pressing issues and to advocate for equality, pluralism, and democracy in Israel.

 

They may not be the tastiest treat, but chocolate gelt are a Hanukkah staple. At a holiday party you are bound to see small children with chocolate-streaked hands, teens piling up stacks while playing dreidel, and adults sneaking a piece or two between conversations. The shiny gold, silver, and blue foil adds a festive touch to this fake currency. It is fun to play with this chocolate money, but dealing with real money is often less light-hearted.

This holiday, it is important to discuss a group of people facing financial exploitation in Israel—agunot. Agunot (singular agunah), also called “chained women,” are wives whose husbands refuse to sign a Jewish writ of divorce, known as a get. In the ultra-Orthodox Jewish tradition, only a man is able to grant a divorce; a woman cannot dissolve a marriage herself. Because marriage and divorce in Israel are controlled exclusively by ultra-Orthodox authorities, this patriarchal model is the only legal option. The imbalance of power that is created gives men significant leverage in divorce proceedings.

This system allows for the exploitation of women. Recalcitrant husbands extort money from their wives, or use the get as a bargaining chip to reduce the amount they owe in alimony and child support. Other men withhold a writ of divorce during custody battles, sometimes ignoring what is in the best interest of their children. In particularly alarming cases, abusive husbands have refused to sign a get in order to continue physically harming their wives. If a woman decides to ignore the need for this document in an effort to deny her husband power, she can face significant consequences. Should she remarry and have children, they will be considered mamzerim, bastards barred from marrying Jews in a religious ceremony—a serious issue considering that there is no civil marriage in Israel.

Some agunot do not face malicious husbands, but they are trapped nonetheless by this callous system. A particularly famous case is that of the ‘Agunah from Safed,” a 34-year-old woman whose husband fell into a coma after a motorcycle accident and showed no signs of recovery for nine years. In addition to the emotional pain this woman experienced, the ultra-Orthodox authorities sought to keep her chained to her husband even though his doctors ruled there was no likelihood that he would ever wake up again. Eventually the Israeli Supreme Court put an end to this draining saga and granted the divorce. While this victory is worth celebrating, many women continue to live tethered to men against their will.

Drawing clearer distinctions between religion and state could help solve the crisis of the agunah and center women’s rights in Israel. Ensuring more egalitarian marriages and divorces, in which each person exists as an equal partner is absolutely necessary. The existing system diminishes the sanctity of marriage by allowing such abuses of power to continue. This Hanukkah as we enjoy our chocolate gelt, let’s remember the need for economic justice and full gender equality in Israel and around the world.