Israel has a singular system when it comes to matters of family law. For Jews, the religious or rabbinical court is the only one able to grant a divorce. The court rules according to Jewish law — a system that has been in place for thousands of years — and it is run exclusively by Orthodox rabbis.
According to Jewish law, a man has to agree to grant the divorce of his own free will before the legal separation can proceed. Rights groups say the system unfairly discriminates against women.
"If he's incapacitated, if he's abusive, if he committed adultery, it really doesn't matter," says Susan Weiss, who runs the Center for Women's Justice in Israel. "If he doesn't say yes, you're stuck."
Ramit Alon, 40, was living in an Orthodox community with her husband and three children when she decided to leave her marriage.
"I got married 16, almost 17 years ago," Alon says. "We had some problems as a couple, and 4 1/2 years ago, I left. I took my kids and just ran away."
Alon says she was optimistic about what lay ahead. "I thought that after I leave, it will take some months and then I could get divorced and start again, a new life. But it's not over."
Stuck In A Marriage
Weiss says she has seen extreme cases among her organization's clients.
"We had a client whose husband tried to kill himself — he was in a vegetative state. She can't get divorced," Weiss says.
But, she says, even when the husband is "alive and well and you know where he is, but simply refuses to give his wife a divorce, she is stuck."
And that's where Alon finds herself. Her husband does not want to divorce her, and she cannot just decide to go and live with another man and bear his children, because under Jewish law, the children of the new union would be considered bastards.
They would not, for example, be able to legally get married here in the Jewish faith, Alon says.
"I have a new life now, but I can't start all over again," she says. "I can't meet someone and marry him and have kids. If I will have new kids before I have my divorce, they won't be able to marry here."
Weiss says the stigma is carried for generations.
"Very few women want to be in the position where their kids are considered mamzerim or bastards. The stigma is really great and the stigma is so bad that it goes forever," she says. "In other words, this person who's stigmatized — his children are stigmatized; his grandchildren are stigmatized; everyone is stigmatized."
Race To The Courthouse
Women's groups say these issues underscore the inherent contradiction between religious traditionalism and contemporary civil society in Israel — which was founded as a Jewish state but also a democratic, modern one.
Weiss says nowhere is this more strikingly illustrated than in the so-called race to the courthouse.
"When you get divorced, you have to decide issues of custody, you have to decide issues of marital property, you have to decide issues of visitation rights — all sorts of ... matters that are ancillary to the issue of divorce," she says.
In Israel, there are two courts that have jurisdiction over these matters, the rabbinical court and the civil or family court. When a spouse sues the other for divorce, the court that receives the suit first gets to decide on issues like custody and property. What has developed is a race that can sometimes come down to a matter of minutes.
"If you're a woman, you want to race to the family court, because you want the family court deciding how much child support your husband pays for the kids or if he owes you alimony," Weiss says. "And men usually run to the rabbinic courts because they have a tactical advantage in the rabbinic courts."
Disputing Women's Complaints
Women's groups say it is a schizophrenic system that doesn't work.
But the head of the rabbinical courts disputes these complaints. In an interview with NPR, Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan says that it is important that Jewish law be the highest in the land.
"You have to understand, when the state of Israel was created, Jews came here from all over the world, and the only thing that could unite them was to create one Jewish legal authority that would combine all the traditions and make everybody into one people," he says.
He denies that religious courts discriminate against women.
"Despite the fact that Jewish law was established thousands of years ago, we try to take those ancient principles and bring them into the modern world," Dahan says.
He notes that the religious courts have jailed some men who have refused to give their wives the get, or bill of divorce.
But that's the exception rather than the rule.
After almost five years, Alon is still waiting for her divorce. She has even sued her husband for damages in an effort to pressure him. The rabbinical court, though, has ruled that an unfair tactic because it means he would not be granting a divorce of his own free will, as Jewish law demands.
"It's really hard surviving this way," Alon says. "Really."