Batya: Israel’s ‘Civic Revolution’ over Religious Marriage

Mavoi Satum
Religious Pluralism & Women’s Rights

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Batya Kahane-Dror - 2018 Trailblazer

Reflecting on success

NIF Canada caught up with Batya Kahana Dror the day after she was interviewed by three television stations, an online news platform and two radio stations, in addition to having led a panel on feminism, nationalism and peace.

Batya was making headlines for representing a woman who was challenging a rabbinical court decision that granted custody of her child to an ex-husband accused of sexual abuse.

“The moment the public understands that Israel will not be less Jewish if it recognizes civil marriage, but the opposite, the religious courts will no longer have a monopoly”

“Chained women are my life’s mission,” she says. “I feel like I got to a high point at Mavoi Satum, that I had contributed a lot to the organization. I wanted to widen my activity, to do more things. “

After 14 years at Mavoi Satum — 10 of those as the organization’s director — now is an optimal time for Batya to reflect on her tenure there. Under her direction, the organization persuaded the Israeli government to better supervise the rabbinical courts. In the interest of transparency, the rabbinical courts must now publish the exact number of divorce cases they see, as well as how many are resolved. Also under Batya’s leadership, Mavoi Satum introduced alternative halachic solutions to the religious courts.

“This is a big success,” says Batya. “For example, the halacha says that if the husband has a reasonable claim, the courts don’t have to force him to give his wife a get. We had a case in which a man said he would agree to the get only if his wife agreed to send their small son to a Chabad preschool. The wife was secular. The rabbis tried to convince her. ‘It’s the same toys!’ they said. Our position was that she deserved a get. Her husband was violent towards her; he broke his promise to live in Israel. We convinced them.” Mavoi Satum used this decision as a precedent in other cases.

Batya adds: “We constantly pressure the courts to use more sanctions against recalcitrant husbands. In many cases, we convince them to find a way to nullify the marriage. Recently, the courts agreed to nullify the marriage of a chained woman because one of the witnesses (to the ketubah) was not Sabbath observant.”

In a groundbreaking achievement, Mavoi Satum also got a private rabbinical court to nullify the marriage of a woman whose get had been delayed by more than three years, and whose case the rabbinical courts had dismissed giving no reason. Mavoi Satum did so based on the fact that one of the witnesses was a convicted criminal.

“We bring liberal, democratic ideas into the religious courts. And we raise public awareness, which brings pressure on the courts and the government to do the right thing”

In the past year, 160 women have approached Mavoi Satum. In 2018, the organization represented 80 women in the religious or civil courts. Fifty-six women this year received a get — some after having to wait years. 

Ultimately, though, Batya is most proud of the “civic revolution” Mavoi Satum has brought about in Israel.

“The religious courts [which are responsible for granting all divorces in Israel] hurt women and violate their rights. We work on two levels to change things: We bring liberal, democratic ideas into the religious courts, like the idea that a woman has a right to a divorce without having to suffer or be punished. And we raise public awareness, which brings pressure on the courts and the government to do the right thing.”

Mavoi Satum recently established private halachic marriage and private rabbinical courts that are outside the official system, so that people seeking halachic marriage and divorce have an alternative to the religious establishment. As more people choose these private options, Batya says, the system will have to change.  

Batya is proud of the case she won in the High Court of Justice demanding that the position of rabbinical court director be available to women. “This is a breakthrough,” she says.

What lies ahead

The road to full justice for women in Israel is a long one. Batya says Israel needs to have an option of civil marriage, so that everyone there can marry in the way they want.

”The moment religious marriage is an alternative in Israel, and not a monopoly…the religious courts will understand that if these institutions hurt women, women won’t want to marry in them. And the moment the public understands that Israel will not be less Jewish if it recognizes civil marriage, but the opposite, the religious courts will no longer have a monopoly. That is truly my vision.”

The day before she spoke to NIF Canada, Batya found out that the High Court had agreed to hear Mavoi Satum’s petition in the case of a couple who married through a private halachic ceremony, and want their marriage registered in the Ministry of the Interior. The Ministry refuses to do so unless the rabbinical courts declare them married – which they won’t. As part of the case, Mavoi Satum is demanding a change in the law that states that a rabbi who marries a couple privately, as well as the couple in question, can be fined and jailed for up to two years.

“This can make a huge change if we succeed. It’s a big drama. There’s been a lot of media coverage of this,” says Batya. “It is the next frontier.”

With more resources…

If Mavoi Satum had more resources, Batya says, they would be able to take on more cases, and provide social services to a greater number of chained women.  

She would like them to open centers in the north, south and center of the country where women whose rights are violated — not just regarding divorces, but issues like children or property — could get legal assistance. “We would do more research about what is happening in the religious courts and leverage that for achieving change. And we would do a lot more advocacy.

“I see every donor as a partner, because without people who believe in our way, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything,” says Batya. “We get no support from the state. The state sees us as enemies of the religious courts. It’s very important for us to know that there are Jewish supporters abroad who believe in our way, and make this work possible.”

Written and reported by Ruth Mason.

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