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Israel: Jewish Husband Incarcerated for Refusing to Divorce His Wife

(Apr. 23, 2013) On April 7, 2013, the Supreme Court of Israel held that the Rabbinical (Jewish religious) Court was authorized to order the incarceration of a Jewish husband who had refused to grant his wife a Get (a writ of divorce), in violation of the Rabbinical Court’s order, for an indefinite period. (Req. 4072/12 Anonymous v. The Great Rabbinical Court (Supreme Court decision, in Hebrew, rendered Apr. 7, 2013), Nevo Legal Database, by subscription).

The case involved a couple that had married and later divorced in the Soviet Union. After their immigration to Israel and the wife’s conversion to Judaism, the couple remarried under Jewish law. Several years later they separated, and in 2000 the husband was ordered by the Rabbinical Court to divorce his wife. In accordance with Jewish law, which applies to Jewish citizens and residents of Israel, a divorce requires a delivery of a Get to the wife and its consensual acceptance by her.

After refusing to comply with the Court order, the husband was initially imprisoned based on section 3 of the Rabbinical Court (Enforcement of divorce Judgments) Law 5755-1995, which authorizes prison sentences of up to ten years for non-compliance with divorce judgments. (Rabbinical Court (Enforcement of Divorce Judgments) Law 5755-1995, Sefer HaHukim 5755 No. 1507, p. 139, as amended (hereafter the Enforcement Law).)

Upon the termination of the ten-year incarceration period, the Rabbinic Court decided to extend the husband’s imprisonment indefinitely, based on section 7A(a) of the Religious Courts (Summons) Law, 5716-1956, which authorizes religious courts to impose fines or imprisonment terms to force compliance with their judgments. (Religious Courts (Summons) Law, 5716-1956, 10Laws of the State of Israel (LSI) 34 (5716-1955/56), as amended (hereafter the Summons Law).)

The Supreme Court rejected the husband’s argument that the Enforcement Law superseded the Summons Law, and therefore the Court did not have jurisdiction to extend his imprisonment beyond the initial ten-year term based on the later Enforcement Law. The Supreme Court also rejected the husband’s claim that his continued incarceration violated the requirement of proportionality in accordance with Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom. In the circumstances of this case, the Supreme Court held, the imprisonment of the husband constituted the only hope for the wife to receive her Get and therefore was proportional. (Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, Knesset website.)