Over the past two months, we have seen some dramatic events occurring around women’s rights in Israel. The gender-segregation issue became front page news both in Israel and around the world. In March, a bill regarding sanctions against recalcitrant husbands was passed in the Knesset, supposedly to protect the rights of agunot, women who are chained in marriages because their husbands won’t grant them a divorce according to Jewish law. It, too, was front page news both here and abroad. At first glance, I rejoiced. The National Council of Jewish Women has been concerned about the issue of agunot around the world since our founding 118 years ago. And, I was thrilled to see that finally we were getting somewhere with what appeared to be a major breakthrough. However, this may not prove to be the case. (There always seems to be a “however” when talking about women’s issues whether in the United States or in Israel.)
Whether this bill will actually help or harm women has now become the most contentious issue within ICAR, the International Coalition for Agunot Rights – a coalition of 27 women’s organizations, including NCJW. This bill was introduced with the best intentions; however, it was revised and compromised so much that it now gives the rabbinical courts more – not less -power over the divorce proceedings at the expense of the woman involved and it has fragmented women’s coalitions on this issue. For more than a century now, NCJW’s stand on agunot rights has been for fair and equal treatment of both sides, based on the belief that marriage is an equal partnership, and that women should have the same rights as men during a divorce.
The issue has become even more complicated because of where it is being debated and how. In Israel, personal status issues regarding marriage, divorce, conversion, and burial are decided in the religious courts, not by secular courts. This system was put into place with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 at a time when there was a national consensus comfortable with no separation of religion and state. As a result, religious courts are part of the national legal system and answer to the State’s legal system as well as to Halacha, or Jewish law, which often leads to contradictions in terms and approaches.
The bill, introduced by a women’s organization in an attempt to force the religious courts to uphold the laws of the land and not just halacha (a tricky proposition at best) has been watered down. While intentions were good, this new bill is a fumbled attempt by the Knesset to direct religious courts toward helping agunot, making the situation worse by providing the religious courts more power, not less. This is what happens when religion and state mix.
Having just returned home from the United States where Congress is deliberating on personal status issues, such as abortion and birth control, and as an American-born Israeli, I am increasingly worried about the attempts to legislate women’s lives both in the US and in Israel. In cases of countries such as the United States (where religion and state are separate) and Israel (where there is no such separation), I would prefer to see government working to uphold women’s rights and prevent discrimination, not attempting to control women’s lives or their bodies. I suggest that both countries keep their eye on the doughnut and leave the issue of what women do with their personal lives to women to decide.