Cross-party calls for the Domestic Abuse Bill to protect victims of ‘Get refusal’ were heard in the upper-chamber this week – giving hope to at least 30 women in the UK currently being refused a Jewish divorce by their spouse.
The proposals to protect victims of Get refusal – where one party refuses to grant a divorce to another under Orthodox Jewish law – were put forward by members of the House of Lords. Speaking in the upper-chamber were Tory Baroness Ros Altmann, Labourite Lord Jonathan Mendelsohn, Baroness Ruth Deech and Lord Monroe Palmer of the Liberal Democrats.
They called for the Domestic Abuse Bill to recognise the issue of Get refusal. Until they receive a ‘Get’, the refusal prevents the person from re-marrying under Orthodox law. If a woman does not receive a Get from their husband, they are known as an “Agunah”, or a “chained woman”. Typically, it is the husband who refuses to grant his wife a Jewish divorce, as a religious court can override the decision of a woman who does not wish to dissolve the marriage by accepting a Get granted to her. The same cannot be done for a man.
There are currently almost 30 women in the UK suffering from the threat of ‘Get refusal’ being supported by the Jewish Women’s Aid charity. At least 15 are going through the process of directly attempting to receive a Jewish divorce from their husband, but the rest have said the threat of ‘Get refusal’ has stopped them pursuing civil divorce proceedings.
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Speaking in the House of Lords, Baroness Altmann, a member of Finchley United Synagogue, called on members to recognise the refusal to grant a Get as a form of domestic abuse in British law.
Baroness Altmann called on the government to consider implementing amendments, secondary legislation or statutory guidance so victims of Get refusal could be supported in the UK’s legal framework.
Baroness Altmann, who will meet Ministers and Beth Din representatives in the coming weeks, said: “This issue has long been of concern to myself and many other religious Jews in this country – and worldwide. Our aim is to help victims who are unable to leave a failed marriage because their spouse unreasonably decides to prevent them from moving on with their life, in accordance with Jewish religious law.”
She added: “Jewish law of course governs Judaism, but this Bill can offer a means of helping those impacted by the particular type of abuse which can arise in some cases under Jewish laws of divorce.”
Lord Mendelsohn gave examples of women facing Get refusal and criticised rabbinical leaders for not doing enough to support victims.
He highlighted the case of a woman who gave her ex-husband £150,000 in exchange for her Get; “less than that awarded by the civil court and being forced to sign a document relinquishing any ownership of the joint properties. She was encouraged by the Beth Din to accept the offer as a legitimate way to secure her Get, but she did not choose to do so”.
He continued: “Another example is of a woman who has been waiting 20 years for her Get and whose estranged husband has left the religious community, so it has no hold of him…
“A third woman’s husband was being prosecuted for the sexual abuse of children. In trying to secure her Get, she was asked, including by presiding members of the religious court, to lie to the police and tell them that the accusations had been fabricated so that she could be given her religious divorce. Additional financial sums were requested. The husband made further demands that were impossible for the wife to fulfil.”
He added: “While the Beth Din expressed sympathy with her plight, there was no movement on the securing of the Get.”
Baroness Deech added to the list of examples of women who had been blackmailed into paying for a Get. “A recent case involved a woman paying her ex-husband £50,000 for her freedom after 15 years of being chained; others have cost similar five-figure sums.”
Lord Palmer said: “We should do everything we can in UK legislation to give power to the women who have such problems.”
David Frei, Registrar of the London Beth Din, said: “The London Beth Din leaves no stone unturned in our efforts to support agunot and help resolve their cases. We will continue to engage with the members of the House of Lords to share our expertise and offer guidance on the proposed legislation to achieve an effective outcome which at the same time is Halachically acceptable.”
Naomi Dickson, chief executive of JWA, which is currently supporting 800 women and their families, welcomed the move. She said: “JWA has long held that ‘Get refusal’ is a form of domestic abuse in itself and our support workers actively help women facing this, alongside the other types of abuse which chained women often experience at the hands of their perpetrator.”
She confirmed that JWA, which also trains communal workers to spot signs of abuse, had been consulted to amend the Domestic Abuse Bill to “explicitly include ‘Get refusal’ as a form of domestic abuse under UK law.”
Ms Dickson added: “Not only will this be the kind of legal recognition be hugely helpful for Jewish women suffering the torment of being trapped in their marriage by husbands who are abusing Jewish law for their own ends, it will also act as a further deterrent for men who may consider deploying this psychological weapon against their partner.”
The office of the Chief Rabbi refused to comment on the reform call from the peers.
There have long been calls in the community for reform. In 2016, the London Beth Din appointed lawyer Joanne Greenaway to work on the issue. Supported by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Ms Greenaway, now CEO of the London School of Jewish Studies, backed the decision to ‘name and shame’ husbands who had denied their wives a ‘Get’ by printing a notice of the man and refusing him entry into his local synagogue.
In the United States, women have paid people to physically force their husbands to grant them with Get. In 2016, Rabbi Mendel Epstein was jailed after offering to torture husbands who refused to provide their wives with a Get, in exchange for almost £45,000.
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