Testimony at the International Tribunal, Brussels
by Joanne Yaron
A little over a year ago, 2,000 women from 30 countries convened the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, in Brussels. Two Israeli feminists participated: Joanne Yaron and then Knesset member Marcia Freedman. We have excerpted below from the testimony Yaron gave there.
The concept of woman as woman, rather than as human being, is probably the greatest crime against women in Israel. It is from this concept, enshrined in the so-called Women’s Equal Rights Law of 1951, that all social and legally sanctioned crimes against women spring.
It is because of this concept that there exist so-called protective laws for women, which are in reality disabilities; or so-called extra privileges, which are in reality obstacles. It is because of this concept that women are trained from birth to fulfill what is considered their primary role of wife and mother, rather than to fulfill themselves.
Even Golda Meir could not escape. During the zenith of her power, the press found it necessary to stress her cake-baking skills, shopping habits, and concern for her grandchildren—as though without these homemaking capabilities her role as Prime Minister was somehow regarded as incomplete.
It is because of this concept that less than a third of the working-age women in Israel work outside their homes, and these mainly in sex-stereotyped service jobs, for less wages than their male colleagues, and with less or even no chance of advancement. It is because of this concept that the various women’s organizations, even the Working Women’s Movement—despite its 600,000 members, and its existence for over 50 years (it was established in pre-State days)—have never dared to realistically challenge the established order.
There is no doubt that the source of this paternalistic attitude towards women is rooted in and strengthened by Orthodox religious law. In Israel all matters regarding one’s personal status, i.e., marriage and divorce and related subjects, come under the jurisdiction of the religious courts, depending on one’s religion, and one must have a religious identification. This situation was inherited by the British Mandatory Government from the Ottoman rulers of the area, and adopted by the Israeli Government with the establishment of the State.
For the majority of Israel’s population, this means Orthodox Jewish religious law, whether or not the citizen is religious or Orthodox. In the rabbinical courts, man and woman do not have equal standing. This is based on the concept of woman as man’s property. In the marriage ceremony he consecrates her, while she remains passive. In case of divorce, he gives her the divorce; she receives it. And, if a man is unwilling or unable to give his wife a divorce, there is no way to release her.
Because of their unequal position, many women often resort to buying divorces from recalcitrant husbands, who fully realize their greater power. They, however, are doubtless much better off than one woman who is forever tied to a known sex deviate who refuses to grant her a divorce, or another who is deaf as a result of battering by her husband, who prefers to beat her rather than divorce her.
According to the Jewish law, a man may marry a second wife while still married to the first. While it is true that bigamy is against the law in Israel, legislators included a paragraph allowing a man to marry a second wife if he receives a permit from the rabbinical court. Such a permit is granted if a woman is unable to receive the divorce (insane, disappeared, etc.), or if she is unwilling to, despite court directive.
This, in effect, is a divorce forced on the woman, an act that cannot be done to a man. He may be imprisoned for not granting his wife a divorce as directed, and this has happened, though rarely, but she cannot be released from the marriage until he agrees. There is a case of a man serving a long term for a felony who refuses to give his wife a divorce out of spite, and there is nothing that can be done. If a husband is insane or disappears or has failed to return from battle but no remains are found, his wife is forever tied to him.
If a woman is married to a man, whether or not they are living together, she is still his property, and she may not form a liaison with any other man. If she does, she is in danger of losing all her rights to her part of their joint property and even custody of the children. If children result from her relationship with the other man, they are considered bastards and may never marry within the community (or outside it either, since there is no interfaith marriage). And if she finally gets her divorce, she may not marry her lover. This was brought out in a recent case in Beersheba, where the woman has been separated from her husband for a long time, and formed a relationship with another man; and when she became pregnant, they decided to marry. When in ignorance she asked the rabbinical court to rush the divorce through since she was pregnant, they obliged, but also added to her bill of divorcement the fact that she was not allowed to marry the man named as her lover.
Not so the man. He may live apart from his wife, form a relationship with any single woman of his choosing, have children with her, and eventually marry her when he is divorced. Even if they never marry, the children are legal and are entitled to the same rights as his other children. The woman, who is considered a common-law wife, also has maintenance and property rights, but should he tire of her, too, she must accept the divorce according to the terms he offers, since they were not legally married.
Woman’s position is still lowered by the fact that she may be declared rebellious by the rabbinical courts and therefore lose her maintenance, property and other rights. A woman may not leave the joint domicile without a rabbinical permit lest she be declared rebellious. She may be declared rebellious if her husband declares, and the rabbis believe, that she did not sew buttons for him, cook, keep house, have sexual relations, and a long list of other wifely duties.
This happened in the case of a Tel Aviv couple. After 26 years of unhappy marriage, the wife applied for a property settlement as the first step to a divorce. In finding against the wife’s claim to joint property, the judge (male) noted that for a housewife to claim joint property she must prove “cooperation.” The husband said that his wife “had never sewed a button. The children came to me to sew buttons. And as for running the kitchen… I was jealous when I saw how the neighbors ate …as a homemaker my wife was terrible.” The wife lost the case for not having cooperated. She therefore did not have joint property rights and in addition, she had to pay the IL. 3,500 court costs. The recently-promulgated law on joint property, which is supposed to relieve such situations, requires a prior agreement by the couple, something young newlyweds rarely do. In any event, it is only enforced on couples married since 1974. This concept of woman as man’s property means that he is the true head of the household. Even if the house was purchased by her, he may refuse entry to her friends and family.
Yet another debilitating situation to a woman is that she passes to her brother-in-law if her husband dies without issue. Release from this levirate marriage involves all the same problems as divorce. The childless widow is “married” to her brother-in-law until he releases her. Childless means no living child. Many a brother-in-law uses this to extort money or property. The rabbinical courts, by the way, usually advise the widow to accede to her brother-in-law’s demands. Sometimes the brother-in-law cannot give release because he cannot be found or is still a minor, which in religious terms means under 13 years old. One such case was a woman whose young husband also fell in battle, leaving his wife and a 3-year-old brother. Four years later, she wished to remarry and found she could not get release until the brother-in-law, now just 7 years old, reaches his 13th year.
The paternalistic/patriarchal attitudes that a woman in Israel lives under are obvious. She has little or no help from the police who see quarrels between spouses as family matters, or rabbinical courts where no woman can be a judge and where women are not considered valid witnesses. There remains a long road to equality in law and custom for Israel’s women.