Civil Discourse Needed About an Uncivil Matter

The upcoming nationwide general release of “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem” (see review on page 14), a 2014 niche film festival movie about an Israeli woman trying to get a divorce (“gett”), has shone a spotlight on the division between religious and civil law in Israel when it comes to domestic issues. We think this attention is positive for many reasons.

Facts always aid discourse. The film illustrates how the Israeli legal system separates marital status issues (i.e. whether one is legally married or divorced) from the rest of civil law for Jews. Special religious courts, under the control of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, have exclusive jurisdiction. Civil family courts exist for non-Jewish citizens and to handle other domestic matters, such as alimony and property division.

These religious courts use biblical law (“halacha”) as guidelines. Under this law, divorce cannot happen without the husband’s consent. The rabbinic judges have very narrow conditions under which they can impose a divorce against the husband’s will. All conditions hinge upon the wife’s ability to prove fault on the part of her husband. Many Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Brunei, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) also impose religious domestic law on their citizens. These laws, or Sharia, are based on the Koran, the Islamic bible. Civil domestic law does not exist.

In the United States, by contrast, all marrying couples must file a document with a civil court to be considered married, even if they have chosen, in addition, to have a religious ceremony. Since 2010, every state is a “no fault” divorce state, meaning that “irreconcilable differences” are adequate grounds for dissolution and that a judge can grant a divorce even if one party does not agree.

This fundamental right does not exist in Israel, where Jewish couples cannot choose whether they want a secular or religious marriage or divorce, and therein lies the core of the matter, both for the couple and for Israel’s global image as a true democracy.

While Israel rightly prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East, it more closely resembles its Arab neighbors than the United States when it comes to imposing religious law on its Jewish citizens.

It is time to have a civil conversation about the uncivil way Israel treats marriage and divorce.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on March 12, 2015.

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