Sunday, January 02, 2005

The only way things will change is if people tell their stories: special screening of the movie Mekudeshet (about 3 agunot) Monday in Jerusalem


At 2:42 PM, Blogger jewishwhistleblower said...


1) Monday January 3rd
Doors open 19:30, Screening at 20:00
Hadassah College, 37 HaNeviim St, Jerusalem
Admission free for Hadassah members, NIS 20 for non-members


2) The Human Spirit: A Clenched Fist
November 10th, 2004

Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered after making a film that depicted the abuse of Muslim women within their society. The expos , and the brutal reaction, reinforce our negative feelings about a religion whose practitioners are hostile to us.

I suppose we should take satisfaction in the fact that Anat Zuria, whose latest film exposes the anguish of Jewish women, doesn't need a bodyguard. Sentenced to Marriage (Mekudeshet) even won the Wolgin Prize for best documentary at this year's Jerusalem Film Festival.

But the film elicits anything but ethnic pride.

Watching it in an audience of observant Jews in Jerusalem made me feel ashamed as a Jew, doubly ashamed as a religious Jew, and humiliated as a woman. I cringe to think of the reactions at film festivals in Biarritz, Prague, Munich and New York.

Zuria brought her camera inside the halls of the rabbinical courts so that we could listen in to the degradation of women seeking divorces from abusive, promiscuous husbands. She concentrated on the story of three women, and of their pro bono female advocates at Yad L'isha – the Max Morrison Legal Aid Center and Hotline sponsored by Ohr Torah Stone.

The central story is that of Tamar, a beautiful Israel-born woman with doe-brown eyes. She had finished her army service and was studying industrial design in Jerusalem. In the evenings, Tamar pursued her spiritual interests by attending classes and lectures. She was surprised and flattered when the charismatic Jerusalem rabbi whose popular Torah lessons she attended phoned her to suggest a marriage match. The young man in question had peculiarities, but she rationalized them as the side effects of a deeply committed religious and spiritual nature.

When he called her out of her college classroom to give her flowers, she saw this as an expression of overpowering love.

Soon after their marriage, only the overpowering part remained. He insisted she drop out of school. The kitchen was locked lest she eat the cheese that was meant only for him. Her labor pains, he railed, were punishment for a lack of respect for her husband. She was locked in the apartment. When the baby became the object of his lunacy, she knew she had to get away. After the birth of their second child, she planned an escape to her parents' home. Her husband found her, beat up her father, and was about to kidnap the baby when the police arrived.

And so Tamar's miserable acquaintance with the rabbinical courts began, like the intifada, about four years ago. She's still linked in holy matrimony.

Two days after seeing the movie, I met Tamar.

"I used to think that only death would release me from my suffering," she said. She's 29. We were both attending an evening of tribute marking the seventh anniversary of Yad L'isha. What a bittersweet event.

Yad L'isha's female rabbinical court advocates, themselves relative newcomers, have facilitated some 300 divorces, but the situation remains dire. Thousands of Jewish women are waiting for divorce, chained within a draconian system that fosters extortion and exploitation.

For years, Ohr Torah Stone chancellor Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has called for a more radical approach – the establishment of a separate court with the power to annul marriages – but that hasn't happened. Women's organizations have fruitlessly entreated the rabbinate to make prenuptial agreements routine, with built-in fines for intransigence in granting divorce. The Knesset has put more teeth in sanctions that can be levied against a recalcitrant husband, but dayanim think twice and thrice before applying them.

Rabbi Eliahu Ben-Dahan, director of the rabbinical court, followed Rabbi Riskin on the evening of tribute program. Ben-Dahan's beard is turning white. We're growing old with him, I thought; we who have long bewailed the injustice of the rabbinical courts, and he telling us of the improvements.

Rabbi Ben-Dahan had ostensibly come to praise the advocates, not to bury them, but complained that Yad L'isha – literally a "helping hand to a woman" – was becoming a fist. His word choice in the context of the divorce struggle was a particularly unfortunate one. Rabbi Ben-Dahan, I was told, was remonstrating against Yad L'isha's new and brilliant practice of suing for civil damages in family court, and also passing on the rabbinical court's displeasure over the women's cooperation with the filmmaker.

Tamar is trying to get on with her life. She has gone back to school. She and her children are living with her parents. Yad L'isha continues to provide legal services. Mevoi Satum, another Jewish women's aid organization, provides financial, practical and emotional support. Hadassah College has granted Tamar a full scholarship. Her best hope for divorce, she reckons, may come from the publicity generated by the film.

So if Mekudeshet makes us squirm, maybe it will also move us to action. Communities need to ostracize – no friends, no synagogue honors, and no phone calls – intransigent spouses. Rabbinical judges have to realize that the religious community – men and women both – want them to use the full range of their halachic options. Women are still a minority on the committee to appoint dayanim.

Lo ta'amod al dam re'echa. We are forbidden to stand by and do nothing.

At 3:34 PM, Blogger jewishwhistleblower said...

Anguished 'agunot' shake up Knesset as documentary is screened
The Jerusalem Post
August 3, 2004

"Run for your lives," an attractive, fashionably dressed young haredi woman screamed as she strode through the hallways of the religious court after her husband once again refused to grant her a divorce, this time unless she paid up "debts" to the tune of $110,000.

The animal-like howl that preceded Sari Diskin's cries not only shook up the system enough to win her a get that day, it also succeeded in unnerving the audience at the Knesset auditorium on Monday, where the the documentary in which it was recorded, Sentenced to Marriage (Mekudeshet), was screened.

Recent winner of the Wolgin Prize for Best Documentary, the film captures a devastating portrait of the struggle of three women to obtain a divorce in the rabbinical courts.

Diskin, an announcer on the haredi station Radio Kol Hai, was one of the many speakers at the screening attended by female MKs from five parties (Likud, National Religious Party, Shinui, Labor, and Yisrael B'Aliya). While still proud to be a member of the haredi community, she said religious women were the primary victims of the religious courts' failure to enforce Jewish law - in her case, failing to compel her husband to grant her a divorce, despite the fact that he was seeing other women and neglecting to support their four children.

Diskin described as "sterile" the courts' repeated directives over five years for the couple to negotiate between themselves, which in practice translated into her husband's attempts to financially blackmail her. According to religious law, only the children of a non-divorced woman are considered mamzerim, while those of a still-married man and another woman bear no halachic stigma. Her husband was living with other women, yet she could not, as a married haredi woman, conduct so much as a friendly conversation with another man.

The rabbinical courts' legal adviser Ya'akov Shimoni noted it was no coincidence that of the three women in the documentary, two were religious, for the rabbinical courts had long noticed that divorces by religious couples were typically more fraught.

Shimoni said that according to the most recent State Comptroller's Report, 96 percent of divorces were resolved within 303 days - 97% within 132 days if only uncontested divorces were taken into consideration. Only 4 percent of divorce proceedings dragged on for many years, he pointed out, and in only half of those was it the wives who were refused divorces. "Husbands are people too," he said. (According to Jewish law, women can refuse to accept divorces from their husbands.)

Shimoni's words brought down the wrath of the audience, which included members of women's rights groups, both religious and secular, and quite a few agunot or mesuravot get (women refused divorces by their husbands), including one of the three from the documentary. Earlier speakers had estimated that some 100,000 women either are currently or once had been mesuravot get.

Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kadari of the Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Law said that men - and women - had internalized the situation in which women had to give up all their rights, including that of reasonable child support.

"Women are routinely asked in religious courts how much they are willing to pay for a divorce. Power corrupts, and the power given men, and the monopoly given religious courts, has corrupted both."

MK Orit Noked (Labor) announced that she had submitted a bill in line with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's proposal resurrecting a 2,000-year- old precedent - hafakat nisuin - in which a man's exclusivity over his wife is annulled after a religious court rules that he has violated the sacredness of the marriage vow and hence is obligated to give her a divorce.

While assertive Diskin's howls won her a get, the more mundane screams in another courthouse, by a Sephardi mother of another woman refused a get, are ignored in the documentary. The mother has been driven mad by the absence of even a pretence to justice or religion in a system that accepted her recalcitrant son-in-law's desire not to leave the side of his newborn baby - the second from the new family he had established since leaving her daughter and their three children - as a legitimate excuse for once more failing to show up at a court hearing.

But angry female MKs promised that they would not keep silent, and before the choice became one between a Jewish state or a democratic one, they would make certain that the religious court system be investigated and overhauled.

Photo; Caption: SARI DISKIN attends a screening of the documentary 'Sentenced to Marriage' in the Knesset auditorium yesterday.

Busting the old boys' club
The Jerusalem Post
December 1, 2004

It's no secret that many Jewish women suffer when they seek to obtain a religious divorce. Too often, greedy, vindictive and abusive husbands refuse to free their wives from unwanted or nonexistent marriages.

Anat Zuria's recent award-winning film Sentenced to Marriage (Mekudeshet) vividly portrays the anguish of three Orthodox Israeli women who were not only victimized by their husbands, but also humiliated and discriminated against by the dayanim or religious court judges who heard their cases in the rabbinical courts.

As a lawyer who represented hundreds of women in the rabbinical courts in the 1980s and 1990s, I heard painful stories from clients whose lives had been virtually destroyed by injustice rampant in the Jewish divorce process.

I appeared before several dayanim who were sensitive, creative and courageous, making every effort to free agunot - women who need divorces but can't get them and are left in religious limbo.

Sadly, however, I was witness to many more instances where dayanim treated women petitioners, as well as their female lawyers, with a disdain bordering on hostility.

Unlike the civil courts, where almost half of the judges are now women, the rabbinical courts remain one of the few male-only bastions in Israeli public life today. Only Orthodox rabbis can be appointed to serve as dayanim.

After decades of publicly voicing my criticism of the functioning of the rabbinical courts, I was recently given the opportunity to "do something about it."

In December 2002 I was elected by the Israel Bar Association to be one of their two representatives on the 10-member Commission to Appoint Dayanim. (The commission, established by statute, is chaired by the minister of justice and includes the minister of religious affairs, the two chief rabbis, two dayanim from the Bet Din Hagadol, two MKs and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association).

My election was preceded by energetic lobbying on the part of 25 women's organizations which formed a coalition, ICAR (International Coalition for Aguna Rights). It includes Orthodox women's organizations, Conservative and Reform movement organizations, and large secular women's groups.

THE COALITION members had tried to block the appointment of dayanim they considered insensitive to women's claims of injustice, inequality and discrimination in the rabbinical courts.

But despite public demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns to members of the commission and a petition to the Supreme Court sitting as a High Court of Justice, they failed to prevent the appointment of an unsuitable dayan to the Bet Din Hagadol in the fall of 2002.

Deciding to try a new strategy, the women's organizations concentrated on bringing onto the commission itself women who were knowledgeable about the plight of agunot and could represent women's concerns.

They decided to propose two women lawyers as candidates for election as Bar Association representatives to the commission.

When the bar's Committee on Rabbinical Courts chose to support my candidacy, as did the president of the bar, Dr. Shlomo Cohen, my colleague Dafna Bustan withdrew her candidacy in order to increase my chances of being elected.

She then contacted all her supporters on the bar's Central Committee, which elects the representatives, and asked them to vote for me. As a result of this generous act, I was duly elected. ICAR also tried to convince the Knesset to elect at least one female MK as their representative to the commission, but the Knesset elected two men from religious parties, Nissan Slomiansky from the NRP and Eli Yishai from Shas.

SO WHAT, if anything, has changed since I became a member of the Commission to Appoint Dayanim?

The first reaction came from the media.

Immediately upon being elected I was bombarded by requests for interviews on TV, radio and in the Hebrew and English press. There was great interest in the fact that, for the first time, a woman supported by women's organizations had been elected to the commission.

Declaring that since women represent at least half of the petitioners in the rabbinical courts women's voices must be heard in the process of appointing dayanim, I emphasized that as women could not serve as dayanim, it was vital that women's issues become part of the discussion of candidates' qualifications.

Furthermore, in Israel today women are approximately 52 percent of the population; women's organizations represent a majority of these women; and almost half of the 40,000 members of the Israel Bar Association are women.

Therefore, I emphasized, despite the fact that I was the only woman on the commission, my constituency was in fact larger than that of any of its other nine members.

During the last six months, as the commission prepared to choose six dayanim to fill open positions in regional rabbinical courts, I have been overwhelmed by telephone calls, faxes and letters from leading rabbis, dayanim, judges, lawyers, MKs, relatives and friends of candidates - all trying to convince me that their candidate is "good for women" and has a proven track record in assisting women whose husbands are recalcitrant.

Then, surprisingly, a second woman joined the commission.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed Absorption and Housing Minister Tsipi Livni, a trained lawyer, to fill the position of Minister of Religious Affairs.

Tsipi and I have worked together to bring women's concerns and issues to the interviewing process of the 150 candidates as well as the evaluation process.

The commission met on November 22 at the Ministry of Justice to select six new dayanim. Despite four hours of intense efforts to reach agreement, we found ourselves deadlocked.

My aspiration is that judges be selected who have served in the IDF, or provided some other public service; and that they have a university education.

From now on, all dayanim understand that women are watching them with critical eyes.

Finally - a woman helps to choose the dayanim. The writer, director of the International Jewish Women's Rights Project, was formerly legal adviser to Na'amat.

Photo; Caption: RABBINICAL PLEADER Tenya Akerman makes her case to the court. But who selects the judges?

At 5:17 PM, Blogger The Hedyot said...

I plan on going tomorrow night to the screening. I'll try to take some notes and let you know what happens.


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