Jewish groups fight for the rights of chained wives

Together with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the International Council of Jewish Women recently announced that its grass-roots project is to be a human rights watch, highlighting agunot.

No one has thought of Jewish women as being victims of human rights violations, says Sharon Shenhav, an Orthodox lawyer in Jerusalem. The reaction, she notes, tends to be: "You Jewish women are so smart and sophisticated — and you have a human rights problem?"

"As a group," Shenhav agrees, "Jewish women are probably the most educated and successful. And yet a situation persists where they have been denied the right to equality in marriage, a right recognized by international human rights conventions adopted by the U.N. in the last 50 years.

"All human rights documents recognize the right to equality in marriage, divorce and the founding of a family," Shenhav says.

So she is collecting stories — women's tales of rage, loss, betrayal, and grief at the hands of husbands and rabbis who have shackled them in marriages gone sour.

The International Jewish Women's Human Rights Watch project intends to document, research and publicize the circumstances of agunot in Jewish communities around the world.

The project, which is directed by Shenhav, has begun to publicize the stories in a newsletter. It documents the cases of several agunot, illustrating discrimination against women.

Rachel, an Orthodox woman in New York, has a civil divorce from her husband David, but has remained an aguna for more than 20 years. Her husband refused to give her a religious divorce until she gave up some of the property that she had been granted under the terms of the New York civil divorce.

In the meantime, her husband remarried. He had received a permit from Orthodox authorities allowing him to remarry although he had not given his first wife a get.

This is an injustice, Shenhav says, because Jewish law gave David the opportunity to remarry while denying Rachel that right.

War, disease, accidents, terrorism and crime take the lives of Jewish husbands in every Jewish community, Shenhav says, creating agunot who are childless widows.

One was Yvette, a young Israeli who lost her husband and child in a car accident. She waited nearly six years for her husband's surviving brother to perform the ceremony of halitza that would free her from automatic betrothal to her brother-in-law.

The brother, who lived in Paris, saw an opportunity for extortion and agreed to grant halitza — if she paid him $70,000.

Shenhav cautions that this issue is not confined to the Orthodox community. In the absence of civil marriage, it affects all Israelis. And throughout the Jewish world there are cases in which vindictive nonobservant husbands are able to wield religious law like a cudgel over their Orthodox wives.

Shenhav and June Jacobs, president of the International Council of Jewish Women, hope that publicizing the women's cases will bring pressure on the Orthodox rabbinical courts to find means to set the agunot free.

"We will do whatever is necessary to encourage communities to find solutions to this painful problem," says Jacobs.

One New York religious court that has assisted agunot, Bet Din L'Ba'ayot Agunot, has shown the "courage" Shenhav's group is seeking from religious authorities. It has granted some 100 annulments and divorces since it was established 19 months ago by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, chancellor emeritus of Bar-Ilan University.

While it has won kudos from women, though, it has drawn opposition from Agudath Israel of America, which charges that the court is "unworthy of the name."

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women recently met to focus on human rights and violence against women.

However, agunot were not raised as a special issue when the Israeli delegation gave its report. Instead, delegation head Masha Lubelsky focused on economic equality for women and on protecting women from domestic violence.

Lubelsky, a former Knesset member and now an adviser to Avigdor Kahalani, minister of internal security, said the problem of agunot was related to the political issues surrounding the lack of separation of religion and state in Israel.

However, she acknowledged: "The rabbis used to find a solution in two minutes. Now we have rabbis who are more extreme. They don't find the proper solution, and they make life complicated."