Sunday, January 16, 2011

JEWISH WOMEN’S HUMAN RIGHTS: International Newsletter


Has anything changed since then?

Welcome to the first newsletter of the International Jewish Women’s Human Rights Watch. In the last decade, there has been increased awareness of human rights violations in every country. Evidence shows that women, particularly, have been denied their basic human rights. Often, the denial of women’s human rights is based on religious law. The declaration that “ women’s rights are human rights” which was made so eloquently at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, should now include the recognition that Jewish women’s rights are human rights. As has been well documented, Jewish women are discriminated against in marriage and divorce under Jewish law. While ancient Jewish Law was designed to protect and support Jewish women, today that same law is being used as a tool to deny her rights to equality in marriage, divorce and the founding of a family. The Jewish community readily admits that the shameful situation of the agunah, a woman chained to an unwanted or non-existent marriage who cannot be released without her husband’s consent, is unjust. It is common knowledge that some Jewish husbands withhold their consent to a religious divorce or get, in order to extort exorbitant sums of money from their wives as the “price” for the get. Nonetheless, the Jewish community, despite a high level of educational attainment, financial success, organizational skills and traditional commitment to social justice, has been unable or unwilling to find solutions to the painful problem of the agunah.

The International Jewish Women’s Human Rights Watch intends to document the human rights violations of women in Jewish communities all over the world. Thanks to the vision and generosity of the International Council of Jewish Women, we will be establishing a central data base which will include cases of women who have been denied the right to marry and to found a family from every Jewish community. In this first newsletter you will become acquainted with the anguish of Jewish women in the US. England and Israel. These are actual cases with names changed to protect the privacy of the women. Each story cries out for action. Each case is a violation of a Jewish woman’s human rights. As the nations of the world celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the ratifying of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Jewish Women’s Human Rights Watch intends to gather information, research and publicize the infringement of Jewish women’s rights. It is our hope that our efforts will bring about the necessary changes that will eliminate such human rights violations in the Jewish community. The time has come for all Jews to act on the biblical injunction:”JUSTICE, JUSTICE YOU SHALL PURSUE”.


In 1956, at the age of eighteen, Deborah married Michael in London. From the beginning, it was clear that they came from different backgrounds. Deborah was raised as a traditional Jew, observing mitzvoth while Michael came from a totally non religious family. Born in Holland, he had never had a Bar Mitzvah. In fact, Deborah’s father strongly recommended that Michael study Judaism for a year before the wedding. Michael accepted the suggestion.

The marriage had many problems, but Deborah kept the family intact for the sake of their three children. Finally, in 1975, she could no longer tolerate the suffering, and asked for a divorce. The couple obtained a civil divorce in December, 1975.

However, when Deborah and Michael appeared in the London Bet Din for the get, Michael behaved in a most bizarre manner. He appeared to be severely emotionally disturbed. After the third hearing in the Bet Din, one of the religious court judges known as a “dayan” told Deborah’s family that they should accept the fact that Michael would never give Deborah a get. Claiming that he wanted Deborah as his wife, Michael harassed Deborah’s family on a regular basis with abusive letters and phone calls.

Michael gave up his business and was unemployed for a period of time. Meanwhile, Deborah returned to work in order to support herself and help the children. An attractive woman in her late thirties, Deborah met a wonderful man who wanted to marry her. But without a get, Deborah could not have a relationship with him as she was still considered to be Michael’s wife under Jewish Law. Since both she and her prospective husband were Orthodox, they could not marry so long as Deborah did not have a get.

The years went by as Deborah found herself trapped in a non-existent marriage, unable to be released because Michael refused to give her a get. Rabbis, lawyers, psychologists and family members tried to convince Michael that the marriage was over and Deborah had no intention of returning to him. The Chief Rabbi of England was aware of Deborah’s plight and attempted to intervene. All to no avail. Without Michael’s consent, Deborah could not exercise her right to remarry.

Suddenly, one morning in February, 1995, Deborah received a telephone call from the Bet Din in London. She was told to come to the Bet Din immediately as Michael had agreed to give her a get. Deborah raced home from work, changed her clothes and drove to the Bet Din. After 20 years of waiting, she finally received her get.

A grandmother now, Deborah is bitter and angry. She feels that she was cheated out of her chance for marital happiness with a second husband and a new family. Still an observant woman, Deborah believes that she was punished for being Orthodox. If observance of Jewish law and tradition had not been so important to her, she could have remarried in a civil ceremony without the get. Deborah is angry with a system that permits a man to have so much power over his wife that he can deny her the freedom and right to marry for 20 years. Vindictive men like Michael, although not Orthodox themselves, find that they can use Jewish law as a tool to vent their frustration and disappointment. While Deborah and Michael lived together as husband and wife for 19 years until the civil divorce, Michael wielded his power over Deborah for an additional 20 years- - - successfully preventing her from marrying the man of her choice.


Yvette traveled to Paris last year to receive her freedom. Although the flight was only 5 hours, the right she sought- - freedom to marry - - - has been a process that took almost six years! Yvette’s story is an Israeli Jewish woman’s nightmare, but it could happen to any Jewish woman today.

In February of 1991, Yvette, her husband and young daughter were involved in an automobile accident. The child was killed immediately. Despite the best of medical attention, the husband died several hours later. The 30 year old mother survived serious injuries and mourned her terrible loss.

At the end of the mourning period, as Yvette began to slowly recuperate and attempt to build a new life, she discovered that Jewish Law prevented her from
remarrying until her late husband’s surviving brother, who lived in Paris, performed “Halitza”. According to the Torah, a childless widow was automatically betrothed to her brother-in-law in what was known as “Levirate marriage” (Deuteronomy 25:5 - 6). She was supposed to bear a child by the brother-in-law who would carry the name of the deceased husband, “And it shall be that the firstborn that she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother that is dead, that his name not be blotted out of Israel”.

This ancient law was modified in cases where the brother- in-law refused to perform his duty. In those cases the brother-in-law could perform the ceremony of “Halitza” in which he released the childless widow to marry another man. In the post-Talmudic period there was a dispute over whether Halitza was preferred over Levirate marriage, with Ashkenazi communities preferring Halitza while the Jews of Spain and North Africa as well as Yemen, Babylonia and Persia gave priority to Levirate marriage. In 1950, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel issued a takkanah (legislative amendment) which completely prohibited the practice of Levirate marriage in Israel while making Halitza obligatory, thus insuring that the law of the Torah would be uniform for all of the communities in Israel. Halitza thus became the only way to free the childless widow to remarry. The Halitza ceremony could take place in any Rabbinical Court in Israel or in a Rabbinical Court abroad which was recognized by the Israeli Rabbinical establishment.

Cases of childless widows occur in every Jewish community. Disease, accidents, war, terrorist attacks and criminal activity can and do take the lives of Jewish husbands. Each case of a childless Jewish widow requires Halitza and each case has its own special brand of pain and suffering. Yvette’s case, however, is unique in that she and her husband had produced a child and only by a cruel quirk of fate, the child died a few hours before Yvette’s husband died. Since there were no surviving children at the time of his death, she was a childless widow. Had the husband died before the child, the need for Halitza would not have arisen.

Jewish law required Yvette to now ask her Parisian brother-in-law to release her by granting Halitza. As has happened in most cases requiring Halitza, Yvette’s brother-in-law (encouraged by his parents who were, of course, the parents of the deceased husband) suddenly saw an opportunity to make a “profit”. He agreed to grant Halitza, but only if the” price was right.” Some might see the brother-in-law’s position as extortion. Yvette’s brother-in-law demanded only $70,000! Since Yvette did not have a sum so large, the brother-in-law and his parents suggested she sell her apartment so that she could pay the price of her freedom to marry. Yvette negotiated for her right to remarry, begging and borrowing money from friends and family to pay off her brother-in-law.

Despite the payments, he remained adamant, refusing Halitza.

An attractive young woman, Yvette has had many opportunities to remarry during the last 6 years. However, so long as the Parisian brother-in-law refused to perform Halitza, she was unable to marry as she was technically married to her brother-in-law.
Yvette asked the Rabbinical Court to order her brother-in-law to grant Halitza, and if he refused, to require him to pay her maintenance in the sum of $1,000 a month. The Court agreed and ordered maintenance retroactive to the date of the husband’s death.
Despite the court order, the brother-in-law held his ground. He refused to perform Halitza and he refused to pay the maintenance, the cumulative arrearage amounting to $60,000 as of last year.

An appeal was made to the Chief Rabbis of France and Paris as well as leaders of the Jewish Community. Israeli religious court judges (Dayanim) and the Director of the Rabbinical Courts used their contacts within the French religious establishment to bring pressure on the brother-in-law.

Finally, after almost six years of waiting and an additional last minute pay-off of several thousand dollars, Yvette was granted the freedom to remarry. Now, in her late thirties, she hopes at last to build a new life and a new family. Sadly, the last six years have taken their toll, emotionally and physically. Dating is not so easy for a woman who has suffered for so long. Furthermore, Yvette’s biological time clock has continued ticking during this long waiting period. Statistically, the chances of her marrying and starting a new family at this age are not encouraging.

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