Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles (Photo/Wikimedia-Visitor7 CC BY-SA 3.0)
Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles (Photo/Wikimedia-Visitor7 CC BY-SA 3.0)

California ruling deemed step forward for Jewish women stuck in abusive marriages

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For Jewish women trapped in abusive marriages, a California divorce court may have offered a way out.

In an unprecedented ruling, a Los Angeles judge deemed a man’s refusal to give his wife a get, or Jewish divorce, a form of domestic violence, and made that determination part of the basis for granting her full custody of their children.

Judge Bruce G. Iwasaki’s order, issued Feb. 7, relied on a recent clarification of the California family code that established coercive control — that is, a pattern of behavior that interferes with the spouse’s personal liberty — as a kind of domestic violence. Iwasaki held that the husband’s get refusal, by preventing the woman from remarrying under Jewish law, met that definition.

The ruling could be consequential for women denied a get, who are known agunot, or “chained” in Hebrew. The application of the coercive control statute — which became law in 2021 — represents a victory for their advocates, who lobbied for California to pass it. The number of agunot in the U.S. is not known — no organization counts them — though a decade-old study put the total in the hundreds. Advocates say there could be many times that number.

Esther Macner, founder of Get Jewish Divorce Justice, a nonprofit that pushed for the statute, said the California court’s decision set an important precedent.

“It validates the argument that get refusal can be deemed coercive control, or domestic abuse, despite the fact that the underlying abuse is rooted in a religious practice,” Macner said.

Jewish law, secular law

The plight of agunot stems from Jewish law, which says a divorce can only be given by the husband. But there are loopholes and fringe Beit Dins, or religious courts, that will enable a man to remarry while his ex-wife — who may have received a secular divorce — languishes with the first religious marriage technically intact.

Organizations that fight get abuse in the United States have to create legal leverage for the women without triggering First Amendment concerns regarding the free exercise of religion, or transgressing Jewish law, which says gets must be given of the husband’s free will (meaning a secular court cannot compel it). In New York, for example, divorces are contingent on parties testifying that they have removed all barriers to the other’s remarriage.

Coercive control statutes offer a new approach: rather than using the prospect of remarriage as a carrot, it uses custody, visitation rights and alimony as a stick.

In other words, if the husband continues to withhold a get, he may lose the kids.

“The language of coercive control gave us an ability to talk about the impact of get abuse,” said Macner. “It’s not that we’re asking the court to rule on the get in any way. We’re just saying, ‘Hey, Judge, take a look at how he is using this thing as a tool of coercive control.’”

In addition to California’s statute, coercive control measures have been signed into law in Connecticut and Hawaii. Similar bills have been filed in New York, Florida, Maryland, South Carolina and Washington state, according to a tracker compiled by the Americas Conference to End Coercive Control.

Since Iwasaki’s ruling, Macner said she has alerted more than a dozen agunot in California whose cases she believes could also benefit from the clarification of California’s family code.

Her day in court

In the February case, the petitioner, Michelle Hazani, didn’t just get the kids — she got the get, too.

In court, Hazani testified about how her ex-husband’s withholding a get for more than two years impacted her — for example, that it prevented her from being able to date.

When that happened, her husband stood up and said he would give her a get. But he refused to sign a stipulation swearing he would do it that day, leading Iwasaki to remark, as recalled by Macner, “If she doesn’t have a get by tomorrow morning, I will know exactly what kind of person you are.” He adjourned court early to enable Hazani’s husband to get the document filed with a Beit Din.

By that evening, Hazani had her get, concluding a saga that began when the couple separated in August 2019.

Despite her former husband’s capitulation, Iwasaki granted Hazani a restraining order against him and custody of their three underage children.

The judge characterized the withholding of the get as one of several aspects of the case that led him to rule in favor of Hazani. Her former husband’s reasons for denying the get did not square with the testimony of a rabbi whom the couple had consulted, the judge noted in his ruling: “This was another instance of Respondent’s lack of credibility and exercise of control over Michelle.”

Iwasaki cited a number of other actions by the husband, such as his failure to remain current on child support, in support of his determination of domestic violence. According to Macner, the litany of complaints protected the validity of the get: because the secular court asserted that get refusal was only one aspect of a pattern of coercive control, a Beit Din cannot rule later that Iwasaki directly threatened to revoke custody over the get, which might be tantamount to making him sign one against his will.

Yet that’s also why the coercive control statute is not a silver bullet, Macner said: withholding a get alone does not constitute a pattern.

But Iwasaki’s ruling added another arrow to the quiver of Jewish women navigating divorce, who report that the issue of the get affects negotiations in up to half of cases.

“It’s there in the background, always as a threat, and creates an imbalance of power,” Macner said.

Louis Keene
Louis Keene

Louis Keene is a staff reporter at the Forward. He can be reached at keene@forward.com or on Twitter @thislouis.

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