‘The ultimate form of dominance and control’
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‘The ultimate form of dominance and control’

ONE of the more confronting moral challenges in Jewish law is gett recalcitrance. 

Investigative journalist Hayley Gleeson cites, as part of an ABC News investigation exploring the complex links between religion and domestic violence, 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”. 

For a Jewish divorce to be effective, halachah (Jewish law) requires that the Jewish divorce document be willingly granted by the husband. Otherwise, halachically a woman cannot remarry or establish a new family and her status becomes one of an agunah which literally means an anchored or chained woman. Furthermore, if forced to wait for an extended period of time, she faces another pressing concern – a race against her biological clock. 

It is clear why many women are forced to relinquish rights to child support, property and sometimes even child custody in the desperate attempt to obtain a gett.

Yael Hersham is chair of Unchain My Heart.

The gett becomes another instrument in the hands of men already disposed toward domestic violence as it is used as an opportunity to exact revenge and extortion. 

Susan Aranoff and Rivka Haut recount in The Wed-Locked Agunot – The “threat to withhold the gett caused women to stay longer in abusive marriages to the detriment of their physical and emotional health and that of their children … The damage to and weakening of the Jewish community extends far beyond that. Some agunot, whose stories we will never know, withdraw from the struggle and are lost entirely to the Jewish community. The injustices done to agunot drive others away from Judaism.”

In a landmark case at the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria in 2015, the magistrate determined that the husband’s refusal to release his wife from the violent marriage and grant her a gett was “the ultimate form of dominance and control”. 

Unchain My Heart (UMH) was formed in 2014 as a coalition of representatives from Melbourne’s Jewish women’s organisations. We are committed to supporting individual agunot and to investigate, advocate and create solutions to the issue of aginut (the state of being an agunah). We collaborate with the Melbourne Beth Din and organisations both local and international. Our trained volunteers are present at gett hearings so that there is another woman in the room together with the eight male participants (the ex-husband, three dayanim, two witnesses, a scribe and the registrar).

Due to the nature of the cases we manage, we are unable to detail them. Our community is a small one and we take pride in demonstrating a high level of confidentiality and integrity when dealing with clients. One of our well publicised cases, is that of an agunah of 16 years, Lana Krain, who was able to receive her gett through the advocacy UMH applied on her behalf to the Melbourne Beth Din. She had long given up on standing under a chuppah with her new partner Mark. Theirs was a long overdue and very happy ending. 

Another agunah of some years, was told by her ex that he would not grant her a gett even though he was no longer abiding in Australia. We were able to collaborate with an agunah organisation abroad and utilising an international jurisdiction her gett was given.

Our approach is one of listening and validating the hurt the women are feeling and their frustration in the process. We identify pathways to manage the situation with the aim of reaching a timely resolution. Emotions are heightened, parties are triggered, there are accusations flying in many directions and often other family members are involved. Our goal is focused – facilitating the gett.

Although gett recalcitrance is often suffered behind closed doors, the numbers are increasing and as a result it is gaining more exposure in the international press. A new Israeli television drama Matir Agunot (Unchained) has been airing weekly, raising awareness of this topic.

We have a responsibility not to be silent. 

We must send a clear message that withholding a gett or committing any form of family violence will not be tolerated by our community. 

If you are aware of any person male or female – who is unable to extricate themselves from a marriage which is no longer viable due to their spouse not giving/receiving a gett please contact unchainmyheartaus@gmail.com or message us on Facebook.

Yael Hersham is chair of Unchain My Heart. 

A community breakfast hosted by Jewish Care, Glen Eira City Council and Unchain My Heart on “Preventing Violence Together” is being held from 7.30-9am on December 3 at Glen Eira Town Hall. For information and tickets, visit www.jewishcare.org.au/pvt.

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