This feature is part of an ongoing investigation by ABC News edited by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson into religion and domestic violence. Other articles in this series have examined Islam, mainstream Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church, Christian clergy wives, and Hindu and Sikh communities.
Sara* had one wish when she finally made the decision to leave her husband after years of escalating abuse: that the divorce process would go smoothly.
“I just wanted it to be civil, for us both to be able to start clean … to be able to co-parent,” Sara said recently, sitting in a cafe in Melbourne.
Instead, an already fraught situation spiralled into a nightmare when her husband flatly refused to grant her a Jewish divorce known as a gett. She was trapped.
Outside Israel, Jewish couples can be civilly divorced, but if they do not also obtain a gett, they are considered still married in Orthodox law. The gett process, overseen by a tribunal of all-male rabbis, strictly requires that a husband must willingly give his wife the gett, which she must willingly accept.
Most of the time this happens quickly and amicably.
But in what experts say is a growing number of cases, Jewish men in Australia are abusing their power in the divorce process to force women into giving up money, property and child custody. Some vengeful husbands — like Sara’s — withhold divorce simply out of spite, others barter for financial advantage.
“I had told him that I thought we were going to have to separate at some stage [but] that I just wanted us to be happy,” Sara said.
Still in shock from the events of the past few months, she spoke quietly and carefully: “He threatened me that if I ever tried to leave him it was going to get ugly.”
It did. Having discovered a complex web of lies her husband had spun, which included a dizzying amount of debt he’d racked up in her name, Sara moved with their children into a new home. She applied to the Melbourne Beth Din — the Jewish religious court that manages matters like divorce and conversions to Judaism — for a gett.
“I told the rabbi [my husband] would probably say ‘no’,” Sara said. “And the rabbi said, ‘Well, let’s see what happens’.”
Her husband — whom Sara describes as a “magnetic personality” and a “very extroverted and charming” man — refused to cooperate, even after the rabbis advised him in letters that withholding a gett was a serious transgression.
“He said something [to the rabbis] like, ‘Talk to my lawyer’,” she said. “I’m not interested,” he told them. Meanwhile, in messages he sent her privately, Sara’s husband gloated. “He said, ‘Gett f***ed, I’ll never give you a gett’,” she said.
He continued to harass her almost daily, bombarding her with text messages and emails, bullying their children, and threatening to turn up at their weekend sporting events.
On one stressful afternoon, Sara felt forced to call the police when he refused to leave her house. When she went to court to get an intervention order, Sara said, her husband’s lawyer tried to bargain with the gett, telling her that her husband would give her a divorce only if she dropped the intervention order.
“I said, ‘Definitely not. The gett is not up for negotiation’ — it’s my children’s safety.”
But for as long as her husband refused to grant Sara a Jewish divorce, she would be known as an agunah — Hebrew for a woman “chained” to her marriage. Without a gett, a woman cannot remarry under Jewish law. If she began a new relationship, she’d be considered an adulteress, and if she had children, they’d be considered mamzerim — often incorrectly translated as “bastards” — and heavily stigmatised. For many agunot, though, especially those seeking divorce from an abusive husband, getting a gett is about more than respecting tradition and avoiding shame: it’s about finding closure, and freedom.
As Sara, who does not consider herself to be religious but describes herself as very traditional and spiritual, said:
“I have no interest at the moment in finding a new partner. But I want to be clear of him [my husband], I want to be my own person. He has broken every rule of our marriage, he’s been unfaithful in every way. Why should he get to have control? Why should he get to hold onto me? It’s completely unfair.”
Around the world, Jewish women and their rabbis are going to extreme lengths to persuade recalcitrant husbands to free them from irreconcilable or abusive marriages. In some countries, especially in the diaspora, where rabbinical courts lack sufficient power and authority, defiant men have been publicly shamed, fined, kidnapped and assaulted by rabbis ostensibly seeking justice for chained women.
In Australia, experts say it’s getting worse. An ABC News investigation — part of an ongoing series exploring the complex links between religion and domestic violence — has found rising concerns that men are exploiting their advantage in the Jewish divorce process to control and traumatise women who have endured sometimes decades of violence and abuse.
Lawyers and advocates are warning the crisis has bled into the secular legal system, where the gett is being used as a weapon in civil divorce negotiations to blackmail women into giving up property and child custody. In some cases, the gett is also being used in the magistrates’ court, with men pressuring women to drop applications for family violence intervention orders in exchange for divorce.
This issue was brought to government attention decades ago, with the Family Law Council recommending in 2001 that legislative reforms be made swiftly to allow courts to withhold civil divorce until religious divorce had been granted. But the proposal was rejected outright by then attorney-general Philip Ruddock, who suggested it would threaten Australia’s no-fault divorce system and that the courts should not be involved in “religious issues”.
Now momentum is building following a recent landmark case in Victoria that classified gett refusal as family violence. Rabbis and Jewish lobby groups are calling on the Government to urgently implement the reforms proposed in 2001. And they may have an ally in the Labor Party. Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has reviewed the Family Law Council’s recommendations and is urging the Government to reconsider its position in light of mounting evidence that gett refusal is a form of domestic abuse.
For their part, rabbis say they abhor gett refusal, and that they’re doing everything in their power to assist women who are stuck in unwanted marriages.
“We are categorically against the gett being used in any form or fashion as a tool or means of blackmail,” said Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, senior dayan (judge) at the Sydney Beth Din.
“It creates enormous emotional anguish and difficulty for the [aggrieved spouse].”
But survivors and advocates argue women shouldn’t have to wait for the Federal Government to intervene. Rabbis must find modern legal solutions to what is an ancient problem, they say, and take a firmer stance against not just gett abuse but domestic violence, which remains poorly understood. Many are also deeply frustrated that, for all the progress made by women in Judaism in recent decades, women are still being held hostage by discriminatory laws.
As Sara said: “The rabbis from the beth din have been amazing during the gett process. But I just don’t understand why, in 2018, it’s still about a man having control.”
There is little research on the prevalence and nature of gett refusal worldwide, and none in Australia, where nominally 91,000 people are Jewish. This is partly because data are not routinely collected, and definitions of gett refusal can vary: should recalcitrance be defined as “refusal” from the outset, or only after rabbis have issued sanctions against a non-cooperative spouse?
In the United States and Canada, a 2011 study by the research firm Mellman Group found 462 cases of agunot between 2005 and 2010. And a 2013 study by the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women at Bar-Ilan University found a third of women seeking divorce in Israel had experienced threats to withhold or refusal of a gett.
Talya Faigenbaum, principal lawyer and legal director at Faigenbaum Family Lawyers in Melbourne, says there has been an upsurge in recent years in the number and severity of cases of gett refusal in Australia and overseas.
“There has been a general increase [in gett refusal] that I have noticed, particularly in the abusiveness of it, and the manipulation and use of the gett in that context,” said Ms Faigenbaum, who has worked on about 12 cases in the past 12 months.
(The increase in gett abuse, she believes, can partly be attributed to an increase in divorce and the “stress and pressure” marriages are sustaining across the board.)
While women can and do refuse to accept a gett — the Sydney Beth Din, for example, told ABC News it is currently dealing with two cases of gett refusal by a wife — experts say men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators.
The Melbourne Beth Din has processed 109 divorces in the past two years, or just over one per week.
Read More: The ABC
By: Hayley GleesonBack to News
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