Thursday, December 17, 2009

I'm sorry, I don't buy the anti-Semitism excuse; KKK never said, "lets blow us up some Jews because they don't treat their women right"

When I first came to this American city, a pregnant agunah, I had been told by some people that abusive Orthodox Jewish husbands simply do not exist in this city. I never quite believed it. However, I had been SERIOUSLY invalidated here by a couple of people in power, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, when I first returned to America after fleeing my husband pregnant. I learned quickly to keep my mouth shut.

Non-Jewish support was limited, and did not understand the cultural and legal needs of the agunah. Actually my case is an Israeli case; there it is the law of the land, so I could not just "switch churches" as one well-intentioned but misguided person once told me. In Israel, you cannot get a civil divorce, period. And few people in town want to hear anything negative about Israel either. I'm not sure why this is so; Israel has good and bad points like every other nation. It’s not a utopia.

When I came back some years ago the local YWCA helped a little bit; I went to a couple of support groups, but we were not allowed to talk outside of the group, because some of the women were still in the abusive relationships and it could get dangerous. There was some bias against certain disabilities, one of which I have. That made it difficult; however, the Y helped in that it showed that yes, he was physically abusive, it wasn't just an alcohol problem, and so the Y was enormously helpful in that way.

When I tried to talk to local rabbis years ago, (now all of those rabbis are now gone save one), it was really a bad situation. I was stigmatized by one; shrugged off by another; and the third, tried to help but his help ended up doing more harm than good. I had to go out of town to meet people who would help me be able even to file for divorce in Israel, because Israel is not known for even allowing battered women to do that much.

Now only a couple of the local rabbis are aware of my prior agunah status but I never rely on them for help in my case, because they are powerless to help with the Israeli custody courts. The groups and individuals that helped me get the divorce were all in either NYC or Israel. Honestly I don't trust rabbis very much in general in this regard. My case involved much Israeli rabbinical legal abuse. Remember, in Israel, all family courts dealing with divorce and marriage are run strictly by clergy.

I have read concerns that bringing attention to an agunah’s plight can fuel anti-Semitism should it become aware of this chillul Hashem in our midst. I feel that the ant-Semitism issue generally speaking is something certain people in power like to use as an excuse for not confronting a range of social issues in the Jewish world. This occurs in many Jewish communities, and I'm sorry, I don't buy it; KKK never said, "lets blow us up some Jews because they don't treat their women right". I understand the very real fear of anti-Semitism as it is alive and well; but I also understand how that fear can be manipulated. I think a more important issue would be the privacy of any individual agunah.

My own personal situation is difficult to understand because it is an Israeli situation. In order to understand it, one has to shed themselves of all their preconceived ideas about Israel and the Middle East, which is difficult for many people.

No one believed me about the abuse until I became an agunah. Once that happened, first thing out of activists mouth would be, did he hit you? Because only abusive men chain their wives as agunot that way. And I still have a lot of issues because of all of that.

It took almost 7 years to secure the Israeli divorce, which included arresting my ex in Israel for withholding the ghet. Then the Israeli courts took some years debating whether they would consider the ghet valid or not.

Now, I don't have anyone representing me or my daughter, we are Israeli citizens but the custody part never got dealt with in Israel. Although here in USA, where we are also citizens, I have sole legal custody. And my ex is still in Israel. However going through the process is very difficult and brings up horrible memories. Honestly if I had not had to go through the agunah experience, I may have healed much more easily from his abuse of me when we were together.

My final thoughts: I was constantly reminded of my own nightmarish experience with the abuse while living with my husband by going through this agunah process. Certainly one day, women like me should be able to sue the rabbinical courts for mental anguish.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Teudat Gerush Arrived!

It has been almost a year since I began and wrote in this blog, and for that, my deepest apologies. Many events have happened, most importantly that I did finally receive, as of Shavuot 2009, the teudat gerush and am now listed officially as divorced in the Israeli government! This is wonderful news, and has been brought about by the joint efforts of an Israeli agunah organization and an Israeli lawyer. They have been so kind as to do this for me pro bono. I still am not sure about the safety of bringing my daughter into Israel, however.

I do intend to keep this blog going, as I have so many things to share about the difficulties I still experience. I am still worried about bringing my daughter to Eretz Yisrael. I also have some other challenges that are specific to being a survivor of domestic violence. Who would think that such a short marriage, in which I had left him physically 7 years ago, would still continue to affect me. I hope in time that I can continue the blog and that it will be helpful for others, and hope to publish the story of how I finally received the Teudat Gerush.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Jewish Woman's Plea to the Advocates of Israel

Many people protesting on behalf of Israel, or speaking at Israel solidarity meetings, or uploading pro-Israel advocacy videos on youtube, do a great disservice to Israeli Jewish women like me. How? They continuously promote and publish the lie that women in Israel have equal rights to men, and that Israel is a near-Utopia for women, and they have been doing this for years. This is simply not true. For instance, I spent years with the status of agunah, in which I could not get divorced despite an extended separation from my husband. My husband had the power to refuse me a divorce, thus making it illegal for me to remarry or to have children other than his, simply because he is a man. I do not have any power to divorce him without his consent, because I am a woman. Perhaps there would not be so many Israeli women in my position, estimated by women’s rights advocates to be in the tens of thousands, if it were legal for women to be judges in family court in Israel. But it is not. And this is despite Biblical precedence in the figure of the judge Devorah, a powerful Jewish woman in ancient Israeli history. Despite this, one must be a recognized member of the clergy in Israel to sit as a judge in Israeli divorce courts.

Let me explain: Israeli family courts have two systems: a secular system, and the more powerful religious courts system. It is only the latter system that has the power to allow or recognize divorces in Israel. If you want to get married inside of Israel, you must do so through the religious courts. If you are Jewish, then you must go to the Jewish courts. The Jewish courts in Israel are Orthodox, and even if you are the most secular Jew in the world, it is the Orthodox courts that will be legalizing your marriage if you want to marry in Israel. And….it is the Orthodox courts that will be legalizing divorces for any Jewish Israeli regardless of what any other court system in the world might say. To be a judge in an Orthodox Jewish legal setting, you have to be a rabbi. You cannot be a rabbi in this culture if you are a woman. Hence, women are excluded from this profession.

People who argue that Israel is progressive on women’s issues because Israel is progressive compared to her Arab neighbors are insulting Israel by measuring Israel based on Third World standards. People who argue that Israel is progressive because Israel had a woman prime minister and currently has a woman foreign minister forget that countries like India and Pakistan also have had women prime ministers, and I don’t think anyone is making the case that these countries are the quintessential example of loving kindness towards women.

I have even been to pro-Israel lectures by professors at American universities claiming that domestic violence in Israel hardly exists due to the exalted position of women in Israeli Jewish society. Now, one can make any claim they want to about how many Israeli agunot there are, or how many Israeli women have been victimized by spousal abuse. This is because Israel has not put forth the effort to tally up the exact number of their agunot. Estimates of the number of agunot are veiled behind outright lies by the Israeli family courts (and published without question by English-speaking Israeli papers such as Arutz Sheva aka Israel National News ). As for spousal abuse, hospitals in Israel were not even required to report emergency room visits as a result of spousal abuse until very recently. Although The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel estimates up to 1/3 of Israeli women have experienced sexual assault at some point in their lives regardless of their ethnicity or religion,

it is difficult to come up with hard data about any of these women’s issues in a country that does little to study the prevalence of violence against women.

Because of stereotypes of Israeli Jewish men being immune to alcoholism, drug abuse, and perpetration of domestic violence, I have actually been accused of lying about the physical abuse I endured at the hands of my husband and of his alcohol and substance abuse by non-Jewish physicians (plural) here in USA. Furthermore, the continuous messages that the pro-Israel rallies send to our own people here in USA negate the efforts of women’s organizations that are trying desperately to raise funds.

I love Israel. Israel has done amazing things in the mere 60 years of its modern-day existence after almost 2,000 years of a harsh exile. Israel has many merits for which pro-Israeli advocates can draw on when promoting a positive image. Why then, must they negate the work of Israeli and Jewish organizations trying to fashion Israeli society into even a better place for all Israelis, including women? Why must they invalidate women such as me, by making false claims as to the lack of discrimination and violence against women in Israeli society?

I went to a conference some years ago, where I was able to listen to a lecture by an Orthodox agunah activist. Her lecture was a passionate plea on behalf of her clientele. She spoke using references to Torah, Talmud, and Jewish Ethics. She did not mince words as she described some Jewish religious courts, or batei din, as “dens of lions”. She did not shy away from describing corrupt, misogynist rabbis as “rashim”, or pure evil. At some point in her lecture, she held up a non-Jewish magazine which had a feature article on an agunah’s struggle. She said that she can understand why this woman went to the non-Jewish press, but that she discourages this because of anti-Semitism.

At this point in time, we are indeed watching anti-Semitism increase in a very frightening way. As much as I respect fears of anti-Semitism, I doubt that anti-Semitism will be made worse if we speak openly within the world-wide Jewish community about the difficulties Jewish women have. No one is going to say that Israel should be wiped off the map because “Jews don’t treat their women right.” That isn’t going to happen. Honestly, non-Jewish America has been, in my experience, fairly indifferent to the pain of the agunah. Most simply do not understand even when it is explained to them. (“Well, you can just switch churches!” one non-Jewish domestic violence counselor told me here in USA). But what does happen, when we lie about the reality of the status of women in Israel to our own people, our own Jewish community here in the Diaspora, we are doing a great disservice to Israeli women. It is time that the Jewish world learns to advocate for Israel without sacrificing the Israeli agunah, the Israeli battered woman, the Israeli rape survivor. It is time to speak with the bravery that the Orthodox agunah advocate did, as advocacy for the marginalized in Israeli society is in itself advocacy for Israel.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Kindness of Many Israeli Soldiers (if only the Israeli police were the same)

I remember one evening during the height of the second intifada. I was living in Jerusalem, and my husband was more violent than usual. He left the apartment at some point, leaving me alone. I went out to get help---any help. I went to Ben Yehuda, a popular tourist attraction. Because this area which included Jaffa Street and Zion Square were popular targets for Palestinian suicide bombings, there was always a heavy military presence there. I approached a young soldier for help. I could hardly speak before the tears came. My Hebrew wasn't very good, but he was kind and he got an anglophonic peer, a young woman, to talk to me. The woman soldier listened to me, and told me that her own mother had been in an abusive marriage. That her mother left the marriage. Another Israeli soldier came to talk to me, and it was decided to get help from the Israeli police station in the Russian Compound. The woman soldier was with me for the walk to the compound. She gave me the name and phone number of her mother, who lived near the Dead Sea, for me to call if I needed somewhere to go. How kind they were! Then I was alone in the police station in the Russian Compound. It is a frightening place with no windows, winding corridors, and smoke-stained walls. I was brought to speak with an Israeli policewoman. An imposing presence, tall, seated behind a cluttered desk, curls of smoke escaping from the cigarette she smoked. I was very frightened and trying hard to tell the story. I started to tell the scenario about what lead to the physical violence. I started by saying, "He was yelling at me".....she rolled her eyes, crushing the cigarette against the littered ashtray on her desk. Without letting me say another world, she interrupted me. She said that yelling at people is not against the law. She said she might call the shelter for me but that she didn't think I needed it. This followed with her cruel commentary: "We are a small country, with real problems, we don't have time for people like you!" And then, mockingly, "Tell me, why did you come to this country? To get married?" Needless to say, I was sent back to my home with a number for Israeli social services. And that is another whole story. For the record, I did not come to Israel to marry. I had been to Israel once before and it was the best time of my life, full of spirituality and beauty. I came to Israel to become closer to the land that had been so beautiful and spiritual, and to immerse myself in yiddishkeit. I didn't have the courage to call the kind soldier woman's mother. I was frightened that even if she did open her house to me, she would ultimately evict me once learning of my mood disorder, or that she may try convince me to go back to my husband, as had happened before. So I never gave this kind soldier's mother a chance. That is what stigma does to a person. That is also what happens when a community keeps telling a battered woman that her husband really does love her and that she should give him a chance, for the sake of shalom bayit. Eventually I became so afraid and so ashamed, that asking for help became so hard, so very, very hard. But I would come to the point where I would ask for help again---but never, never again from the Israeli police. When I cried out for help again, it would be to a different kind of authority. I never forgot the kindness of the young Israeli soldiers who helped me. They found the time to help me while on duty, while watching the area for potential terrorist threats. If only I had called the woman soldier's mother! Things may have turned out very differently.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Every time I speak to someone who has the authority to help my daughter and me, it throws me back into the time when I was fleeing him. I have to remind myself that he is not here; that he cannot lock me in the apartment for an entire day. That he is not here to throw me against the wall, or strike me in my face. That he cannot enter my home drunk and screaming, "My wife is a zonah! I ought to slap her around!" ---that I do not have to wait with baited breath as he smashes his fists against the wall, waiting for him to pass out. Every time I speak with an agunah advocate, or a rabbi that is involved in the process, I have to remind myself, they do not know that I am on medication for a mood disorder. They will not doubt me as the employees at the American consulate did, as Israeli social workers did, as so many others did when they learned of my condition. That I am no longer literally wandering pregnant in the desert, asking for help from people who tell me that I have no choice but to go back to him. I am no longer hungry in the locked apartment or hungry in the desert; gone are the days when I weighed 85 pounds at 14 weeks of pregnancy. I have to remind myself that I am safe, that he is far away. It is very hard everytime I speak to the people who have the power to help unlock this exile that my daughter and I are in. And it brings nightmares. Yet I still speak to advocates and rabbis. For my daughter's sake as well as for mine.