The State vs. agunot

Our state representatives, who are responsible for upholding principles of democracy, equality and justice, just don't understand their role

The struggle of agunot is like mountain climbing: one minute the peak seems close, and then suddenly it disappears beyond the horizon. The cloud that covers the peak materialized this time from an unexpected place. The District Court of Tel Aviv accepted the position of the state attorney and denied the appeal of Rachel who tried to overturn a decision of the Family Court requiring her to pay a filing fee of 1% of the damages that she claimed both against her husband for refusing to give her a get, as well as against the state for its negligent supervision of the rabbinic judges responsible for her divorce case.


Rachel, who raised and supported herself and her children with great effort during the many years that her husband refused to give her a get, can't pay the high filing fee. Once again it has been confirmed that in order to move the wheels of justice, one must be very rich indeed.


And here is the crux of the matter: Rachel had been submerged in legal proceedings in the rabbinic courts for 18 years. She began litigating her divorce case when she was 36 years old and ended that litigation a short time before she reached the age of 54. During 12 long years, the rabbinic courts conducted hearings on the issue of whether or not Rachel's husband should deliver a get to her. And for another six years, Rachel was dragged through the system until the rabbinic courts finally declared that the get her husband had given was kosher and valid. Although Rachel is free and happy today, she wants damages for those lost years.


Compensation for never-ending cases  

During those lost years, Rachel, a religious woman, could have found love that would have accompanied her in her mature years. CWJ represents Rachel and attaches great importance to her claim against her husband for damages for not giving a get , as well as against the state for its "direct and indirect responsibility regarding the clear and criminal negligence of the rabbinic judges who handled her divorce case." There can be no doubt that the outcome of this case will have a long-standing impact on the women who conduct never-ending divorce cases in the rabbinic courts.


This is not the place to go into a detailed explanation regarding the nuances of the legal claims made regarding the filing fee. Let's just say that what's at stake here is the characterization of the petition as a "fixed amount" or "bodily injury" or "miscellaneous." Categorizing the petition as a claim for a "fixed amount" would cost a woman tens of thousands of shekels. Whereas categorizing the petition as "bodily damages" or "miscellaneous" would cost a woman hundreds of shekels alone. Categorizing the claim under the rubric of "family violence" would allow a woman to file her claim without paying any filing fee at all.


It would not have been difficult to allow Rachel and other women to file their petitions in such manner that would absolve them of the significant filing fees. All that was needed was just a bit of good will. Instead, the District Court accepted the position of the state attorney who fought the case with all his power and might against this single woman, and did everything to place obstacles in the way of her appeal.


State fighting poor, despondent women  

"I am not surprised at all about this decision. But I am disappointed by the way that the state attorney handled this case," says Attorney Susan Weiss, the founding director of the Center for Women's Justice. "The state attorney seems to feel that it's his job to protect the state and its institutions at any price. It's easy to put up a fight against poor, despondent women who seek some semblance of justice from an established and strong state institution such as the rabbinic courts.


"The state attorney should have wielded some discretion and not acted blindly without thinking. It should not be a matter of course that state attorneys deny the claims of individual citizens vis-?-vis the state.


"The state's claim that agunot pay filing fees that they cannot possibly meet adds salt to a deep wound that exists in Israeli society. It seems that the state attorney does not understand that it is his responsibility as a representative of the Israeli public to uphold democracy and to support principles of equality and justice. This is too bad."


Though I have not climbed any mountains since my field trips in Bnai Akiva, I do remember that although the peak disappears from time to time, one must keep climbing until one gets there. So we will continue to climb. CWJ is considering appealing this case to the Supreme Court so that women who want to claim damages against the state for the negligent handling of their

divorce cases will not have to pay such high filing fees.


Rivkah Lubitch is a rabbinical advocate, working at The Center for Women’s Justice

Tel. 02-5664390


Translated by Susan Weiss


פרסום ראשון: 05.10.09, 08:00
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