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Divorce Israeli Style

By Kari Santos | Jan. 2, 2015

Law Office Management

Jan. 2, 2015

Divorce Israeli Style

Frederick Hertz reviews Gett, which offers a powerful look at the Rabbinical Court in Israel.

Creating a powerfully dramatic film situated entirely in a courtroom is never a simple task, and those that get it right -- think Twelve Angry Men -- are always memorable, especially for the lawyers in the audience. Add to the challenge a script that focuses on the fate of women in the religious divorce courts of Israel, a subject that is likely to be esoteric to most American viewers, and it is remarkable that this film is such a powerful success. But a success it is, in many unique dimensions.

Here's the legal background. However anachronistic it may seem given Israel's overall "modern" culture, Israeli family law is still controlled for the most part by religious authorities: rabbinical courts for Jews, Shariah courts for Moslems, and canon law for Christians. It's a relic of the pre-state Ottoman practice of relegating matters of "personal status" to each religious community, a system that was developed to avoid the imposition of a foreign "civil" law (or an alien religious practice) on the variety of segregated social divisions that constituted that multi-cultural empire. More than sixty years later, the rules that were viewed as a temporary extension of the status quo when the state of Israel was founded in 1948 still remain in effect. Thus, except for the small minority of inter-faith couples that got married outside of Israel, divorces for Jewish couples must be adjudicated in the rabbinical court system.

While most aspects of Israeli society are relatively free of extreme gender bias, the religious courts remain entrenched in what some consider to be the worst variety of male privilege. By the express terms of the applicable religious law the husband must consent to the divorce -- known in Hebrew as a "gett." And, except in the rarest of exceptional circumstances, the husband's consent cannot be imposed by the judges. Most observers say the vast majority of these divorces are processed without significant delay or obstacle, but a notable minority of them are dragged out by the husband's refusal to consent to the divorce. Sometimes the husband's motivation is purely financial, where he is vying to extract a money or property concession from his wife in exchange for giving the "gett." But in other instances it is purely vindictive or a bald assertion of male power, resulting in terrible agony and a nightmare of legal and financial problems for the wife. This is the story line of Gett an important film released in Israel this past year and scheduled for a wide commercial release in the United States in February.

What makes Gett so effective is that the motivations of the husband -- and indeed, of all the participants -- is never portrayed as overly simplistic or one-dimensional. Each of the secondary characters, including the court advocates and the judges, have their own multi-layered agendas, and as the trial unfolds over the course of several years we are drawn into each of their personal stories, as well, of course, into the drama of the unhappy couple. Roni Elkabetz, a stunning Israeli actress who also is the co-director of the film with her brother Shlomi, emerges over time as a pained and desperate wife, struggling to find her place as a "separated" wife in a male-dominated Moroccan-Israeli community. Her court advocate is a beguiling and passionate hero, and also someone beset by his own demons. The judges range from well-meaning paternalistic elders to downright nasty enforcers of archaic rules. And the husband, both mysterious and irrational, in the end appears a wounded and, even a sympathetic victim.

These powerful performances aren't just for the sake of drama -- they also have a political purpose. One of the most compelling debates amongst the socially-conscious film crowd these days is how best to inspire societal change through the various forms of visual media. In the past most activists looked to documentaries as the best vehicles for social change, but increasingly, critics and advocates are noting that a well-told dramatic story can be even more effective.

This is certainly true here. For those campaigning against the sexist regime of rabbinical divorce in Israel, Gett displays a powerful example of the effectiveness of the dramatic approach. Rather than being isolated in the artsy film festival circuit, it is being shown across Israel, and the film appears to be opening up the discussion of the need for civil marriage -- and divorce -- in ways that no other advocacy piece has managed to do. For an American audience, it's not a question of changing our laws, but rather, it offers a strongly acted drama that explores what is the role of religion in the lives of ordinary Israeli citizens. And for everyone, it asks what it means to end a marriage, both individually and from a societal perspective.

And this is what makes Gett such a compelling film, especially for those practicing in any arena of family law. These judges ask many of the same questions our clients want to discuss but which are rarely mentioned in any family law court: why the marriage failed, whether it can be repaired, and how best to heal the wounded hearts of the spouses. It is hard to imagine any of our clients standing in front of a judge -- let alone next to their spouse -- having to explain why they should be allowed to end their marriage. This is especially the case now, forty years after the imposition of no-fault divorce here in California. And yet, observing the riveting portrayal of the unquestionably flawed rabbinical divorce system as is practiced in Israel, one has to wonder whether some of what they are doing might resonate in California family courts.

Watch the film and ask yourself: as sexist and oppressive as the Israeli approach to divorce seems to be, is our system doing a better job for our unhappily married clients?

Gett (in Hebrew with English subtitles) will show at the Winter Program of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on January 17, 2015, and will open for a commercial run throughout California later this winter.

Frederick Hertz is an attorney and author of Making It Legal: A Guide to Same-Sex Marriage, Domestic Partnerships & Civil Unions (Nolo 2014).

Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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