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Israel: Expansion of Rabbinical Courts’ Enforcement Authority over Divorce Refusers

(Apr. 25, 2017) On April 3, 2017, the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) passed the Rabbinical Courts (Enforcement of Divorce Judgements) (Amendment No. 8) Law, 5777-2017 (Amendment Law). (SEFER HAHUKIM [BOOK OF LAWS, official gazette, SH] 5777 No. 2627 p. 593, available at KNESSET NATIONAL LEGISLATION DATABASE (in Hebrew).)  The Amendment Law amends the Rabbinical Courts (Enforcement of Divorce Judgments) Law.  (SH 5758-1998, No. 1507 p. 139, as amended (Enforcement Law) (in Hebrew).)

The Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction (Marriage and Divorce) Law, 5713-1953, authorizes rabbinical courts to adjudicate matters of marriage and divorce of Jewish citizens and residents of Israel, in accordance with Jewish law.  (Rabbinical Courts’ Jurisdiction (Marriage and Divorce) 5713-1953, as amended, §§ 1-2, SH 5713 No. 134 p. 165 (in Hebrew).)  While rabbinical courts may decide that the parties to a marriage should obtain a divorce, they do not have the power to dissolve the marriage.  For a divorce to be valid, Jewish law requires the consensual delivery of a get (writ of divorce) by the husband to the wife and her consensual receipt of the get.  (Jewish Divorce 101, CHABAD.ORG (last visited Apr. 24, 2017).) 

The Enforcement Law was designed to address the difficulty faced by persons whose spouses do not comply with a rabbinical court’s divorce judgment on giving or receiving a get.  To encourage compliance, the Enforcement Law provides enforcement authority to the rabbinical courts, including the power to subject non-compliers (get refusers) to imprisonment until they comply.  Imprisonment of a get refuser generally does not exceed a five-year period, which can be periodically extended to up to ten years.  (Enforcement Law § 3.)  The Enforcement Law also authorizes the rabbinical courts to issue “restriction orders” against prisoners already incarcerated either for committing unrelated offenses or for refusing to give a get.   (Explanatory Notes, Amendment Law Draft Bill, Knesset Hatsaot Hok No. 691 p. 117 (in Hebrew).)

According to the explanatory notes for the draft bill of the Amendment Law, “[a] refusal to give a get inflicts serious harm on the rights of the spouse, including his/her right to liberty, respect, and spousal relations, and sometimes even to his/her right to parenting.  That is why there is justification in imposing restrictions on a get refuser to bring him to give a get.”  (Id.)

Among the restrictions authorized by the Enforcement Law to be applied to prisoners who are get refusers are limitations on special leave, sending and receiving mail, visitation rights, paid work, purchases at the prison’s cantina, and early release.  (Enforcement Law § 2(a)(7).)   The Amendment Law provides that the rabbinical courts may also limit get-refusing prisoners from:

(10) participating in any organized educational activities that takes place in prison;

(11) receiving, according to his request, food that complies with special Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), that is not provided to all the prisoners, as long as the food provided … includes basic items that comply with such requirements;

(12) staying in a special place in prison that is designated for religious prisoners; and

(13) wearing his personal clothes; [if] the rabbinical court so ordered, the prisoner or the detainee will be forced to wear prisoner clothing in public places in or outside of prison. (Amendment Law § 1, adding subsections 10-13 to § 2(a)(7) of the Enforcement Law.)

A prisoner who has been subjected to a restriction decree may be ordered to be held in solitary confinement for a period of 14 days until he complies with the divorce judgment.  This period may be renewed every nine days if the prisoner has not complied.  The placement of a prisoner in solitary confinement, however, cannot last under any circumstances more than seven days consecutively, and there is a break of seven days between each period of solitude.  (Enforcement Law § 3A(a-e).)

The Amendment Law provides that a rabbinical court that has ordered the placement of a person in solitary confinement may also order that the prisoner may not be permitted to have any phone contact or have any writing or reading materials except for a prayer book.  (Amendment Law § 2, adding subsection (f) to §3 A of the Enforcement Law.)