Paul Martin   Letter 12   07-Jun-2004   Does Irwin Cotler reach out to women?

Prime Minister
Paul Martin
Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler
Justice Minister
Irwin Cotler

"In the religious courts, women, along with children, the mentally deficient, the insane, and convicted criminals, cannot testify.  A woman cannot be a witness or, needless to say, a judge.  A woman cannot sign a document." — Andrea Dworkin

07 Jun 2004

The Right Honourable Paul Martin
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON    K1A 0A2

Mr Prime Minister:

Riding past a Globe and Mail box this morning, I caught the headline, "Liberals reach out to women, Quebec" and was so astonished that I almost fell off my bike.  The last time I almost fell off my bike going past this same Globe and Mail box was when I read the headline that Jean Chretien hoped to be remembered as the Green Prime Minister — which was after giving the nod to U.S. Ethyl Corporation to blanket Canada with the neurotoxin manganese.

What I found astounding this morning was that even while Liberals hope to take credit for reaching out to women, they permit Irwin Cotler to sit in your cabinet as Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada.  But how can Liberals be said to reach out to women when leading Liberal Irwin Cotler has shown himself incapable of speaking out against the egregious abuse of women under his very nose that is documented below?

In Israel, Jewish women are basically — in reality, in everyday life — governed by Old Testament law.  So much for equality of the sexes.  The Orthodox rabbis make most of the legal decisions that have a direct impact on the status of women and the quality of women's lives.  They have the final say on all issues of "personal status," which feminists will recognize as the famous private sphere in which civilly subordinate women are traditionally imprisoned.  The Orthodox rabbis decide questions of marriage, adultery, divorce, birth, death, legitimacy; what rape is; and whether abortion, battery, and rape in marriage are legal or illegal.  [...]

How did Israel get this way — how did these Orthodox rabbis get the power over women that they have?  How do we dislodge them, get them off women?  Why isn't there a body of civil law superseding the power of religious law that gives women real, indisputable rights of equality and self-determination in this country that we all helped build?  I'm 44; Israel is 42; how the hell did this happen?  What are we going to do about it now?  [...]

2.  The condition of Jewish women in Israel is abject.

Where I live [the United States] things aren't too good for women.  It's not unlike Crystal Night all year long given the rape and battery statistics — which are a pale shadow of the truth — the incest, the pornography, the serial murders, the sheer savagery of the violence against women.  But Israel is shattering.  Sisters: we have been building a country in which women are dog shit, something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe.  [...]  From what I saw and heard and learned, we have helped to build a living hell for women, a nice Jewish hell.  [...]  I felt disgraced by the way women are treated in Israel, disgraced and dishonored.  I remembered my Hebrew School principal, the Holocaust survivor, who said I had to be a Jew first, an American second, and a citizen of the world, a human being last, or I would have the blood of Jews on my hands.  I've kept quiet a long time about Israel so as not to have the blood of Jews on my hands.  It turns out that I am a woman first, second, and last — they are the same; and I find I do have the blood of Jews on my hands — the blood of Jewish women in Israel.

Divorce and Battery

In Israel, there are separate religious courts that are Christian, Muslim, Druze, and Jewish.  Essentially, women from each group are subject to the authority of the most ancient systems of religious misogyny.

In 1953 a law was passed bringing all Jews under the jurisdiction of the religious courts for everything having to do with "personal status."  In the religious courts, women, along with children, the mentally deficient, the insane, and convicted criminals, cannot testify.  A woman cannot be a witness or, needless to say, a judge.  A woman cannot sign a document.  This could be an obstacle to equality.

Under Jewish law, the husband is the master; the woman belongs to him, what with being one of his ribs to begin with; her duty is to have children — preferably with plenty of physical pain; well, you remember the Old Testament.  You've read the Book.  You've seen the movie.  What you haven't done is live it.  In Israel, Jewish women do.

The husband has the sole right to grant a divorce; it is an unimpeachable right.  A woman has no such right and no recourse.  She has to live with an adulterous husband until he throws her out (after which her prospects aren't too good); if she commits adultery, he can just get rid of her (after which her prospects are worse).  She has to live with a batterer until he's done with her.  If she leaves, she will be homeless, poor, stigmatized, displaced, an outcast, in internal exile in the Promised Land.  If she leaves without formal permission from the religious courts, she can be judged a "rebellious wife," an actual legal category of women in Israel without, of course, any male analogue.  A "rebellious wife" will lose custody of her children and any rights to financial support.  There are an estimated 10,000 agunot — "chained women" — whose husbands will not grant them divorces.  Some are prisoners; some are fugitives; none have basic rights of citizenship or personhood.

No one knows the extent of the battery.  Sisterhood Is Global says that in 1978 there were approximately 60,000 reported cases of wife-beating; only two men went to prison.  In 1981 I talked with Marcia Freedman, a former member of the Israeli parliament and a founder of the first battered-women's shelter in Israel, which I visited in Haifa.  At that time, she thought wife-beating in Israel occurred with ten times the statistical frequency we had here [in the United States].  Recent hearings in parliament concluded that 100,000 women were being beaten each year in their own homes.  [...]

Well, women get beaten — and beaten to death — here [in the United States] too, don't they?  But the husband doesn't get so much active help from the state — not to mention the God of the Jews.  And when a Jewish woman is given a divorce, she has to physically back out of her husband's presence in the court.  It is an argument for being beaten to death.

A draft of Israel's newly proposed "Fundamental Human Rights Law" — a contemporary equivalent of our Bill of Rights — exempts marriage and divorce from all human-rights guarantees.  [...]

All the Other Good Things

Of course, Israel has all the other good things boys do to girls: rape, incest, prostitution.  Sexual harassment in public places, on the streets, is pervasive, aggressive, and sexually explicit.  Every woman I talked with who had come to Israel from some other place brought up her rage at being propositioned on the street, at bus stops, in taxis, by men who wanted to fuck and said so.  The men were Jewish and Arab.  At the same time, in Jerusalem, Orthodox men throw stones at women who don't have their arms covered.

Excerpts from Andrea Dworkin, Israel: Whose Country Is It Anyway? (Part 2 of 2), the complete Part 2 of the article being available online at www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/IsraelII.html, and from which Part 1 can be accessed by link.

Andrea Dworkin saying above "if she commits adultery, he can just get rid of her" perhaps leaves the impression that the husband needs a cause of action as serious as adultery before he can divorce his wife, and that he has a choice as to how to respond to his wife's adultery.  Other sources paint a more misogynistic picture on both counts — the husband doesn't need any serious cause of action, and when it comes to adultery, he doesn't have a choice:

Under Jewish law, a man can divorce a woman for any reason or no reason.  The Talmud specifically says that a man can divorce a woman because she spoiled his dinner or simply because he finds another woman more attractive, and the woman's consent to the divorce is not required.  In fact, Jewish law requires divorce in some circumstances: when the wife commits a sexual transgression, a man must divorce her, even if he is inclined to forgive her.
Ahavat Israel at www.ahavat-israel.com/ahavat/torat/divorce.asp

The outline above is far from exhausting all that is worth noting about Orthodox Judaism's treatment of women.  Rather, various details cry out for examination, as for example the "proper manner" in which a non-Jewish woman is converted to Judaism:

This 'proper manner' entails, for females, their inspection by three rabbis while naked in a 'bath of purification', a ritual which, although notorious to all readers of the Hebrew press, is not often mentioned by the English media in spite of its undoubted interest for certain readers.
Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, Pluto Press, London and Boulder Colorado, 1994, pp. 4-5.

Or, for example, the detail of the rape of a married woman calling down upon her head the rabbinical condemnation of disloyalty and unfitness to continue her marriage, unless her husband has the presence of mind to utter a certain disingenuous incantation:

Women's groups were expressing outrage after rabbis ruled that a charedi [fervently religious] woman who was gang-raped had to get a divorce because her husband failed to utter a perfunctory "I don't believe you" when she told him what happened.  [...]

According to Jewish law, if a woman is raped, tells her husband and the husband utters disbelief, the couple can stay married.  If he fails to do so, however, they must divorce, as the woman would be deemed disloyal.

Instead of telling his wife, "I don't believe you," the victim's husband telephoned various religious functionaries to consult them, little realizing that in so doing he was in fact admitting that he believed his wife's story.

Consequently, a number of rabbis and halachic authorities informed the husband a few days later that he must divorce his wife immediately, despite the couple's love for each other and their desire to stay married and provide for their children.

The rabbis refused to compromise despite the husband's protests, especially since the husband is a Cohen, or a member of the ancient Jewish priesthood, which they said calls for even stricter interpretations of the law.
Michael Yudelman, Forced divorce for rape victim spurs women's anger, Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, 06-Mar-1998, www.jewishsf.com/bk980306/irape.htm.

The married woman who is raped, then, cannot both seek justice and preserve her marriage.  Thus, the more happily married she is, the more she becomes a temptation for the rapist who can expect that she will not complain of him to the authorities out of fear of destroying her marriage.

The adherence to ancient practices which weigh heavily on women can sometimes be explained by the money that the husband is enabled to extort from his wife:

Indeed most women in Yael's position succumb to extortion to receive their get, without which they cannot go on with their lives.  One woman gave her husband all her money plus her deceased mother's gold jewelry.  Others give away their homes and all their assets.  "I don’t want to say the rabbis encourage extortion," says one activist, "but they allow it."
Chained Women: Agunot in Israel, New Israel Fund, www.nif.org.il/Feature_eng.asp?ID=33

If the heavy cost of litigating before a rabbinical court were divided evenly between husband and wife, then it would appear to be a rabbinical extortion irrespective of sex; however, if it is the woman bringing an aguna action demanding a get who pays for the three judges, then it would seem that she would pay four-fifths of the personnel costs:

According to various testimonies that the London-based Jewish Chronicle published a few weeks ago, some husbands demand sums ranging from 10,000 to 60,000 pounds in return for a get.  Writing in The Jerusalem Post, author Naomi Ragen cites passages in a letter from Rabbi Moshe Morgenstern, a leading Orthodox rabbi.  Morgenstern points out that a Jewish divorce hearing requires, in addition to the three rabbis comprising the court tribunal, another two rabbis, representing the husband and wife respectively.  Each of these five rabbis receives at least $200 an hour.  Thus, notes Ragen, the minimum cost for one hour of rabbinical court proceedings is $1,000.  Since the arbitration process takes anywhere from 10 to 50 hours, every aguna, according to Morgenstern, represents a revenue source worth between $10,000 and $50,000.
Eliahu Salpeter, A little courage on the part of the rabbis, Ha'aretz, 13-Jul-2000, on the Israel Religious Action Center web site at www.irac.org/article_e.asp?artid=293

Even today, well-to-do New York lawyer and businessman David is able to purchase from an Orthodox rabbi a permit to marry Deborah without first divorcing Rachel:

Using the get as a tool to blackmail Rachel into giving up her rights to property under New York law, David was preventing Rachel from remarrying.  He, however, had no such problem.  Jewish law has always permitted Jewish men to have multiple wives.  In biblical times, King Solomon had 1000 wives!  While polygamy was never encouraged, it was not unusual.  Over 1000 years ago, Rabbenu Gershom, a great rabbinical authority in Europe, forbade polygamy for Ashkenazi Jews.  Polygamy is prohibited among Sephardi Jews more recently by state law.  Today, under limited circumstances, a Jewish husband can take someone who technically is a second wife if he receives a permit from Orthodox rabbis, even though he has not given his first wife a get.  David obtained such a permit, known as a "heter," and married Deborah several years ago.  The couple live comfortably and openly, while denying Rachel the same opportunity.  [...]  Rachel remains an agunah, chained to a non-existent marriage.  While David has remarried, Rachel continues to be denied the right to marry.  Until she gives up the several hundred thousand dollars that David is demanding, she will remain a "chained" woman.  The mother of four grown children, Rachel does not plan to start a new family, but she yearns for the love and companionship of a new marriage, an opportunity that Jewish law has given to David, but denied to her.  Depressed and discouraged by the injustice of her situation, Rachel is the victim of a human rights violation.
International Jewish Women's Human Right Watch: An American Agunah's Story, Spring 1998, Newsletter No. 1 www.icjw.org/ijwhrw/american_story.htm

As Andrea Dworkin said above, an Israeli woman is trapped within a theocracy, having no secular alternative that she might follow; and reinforced also is Andrea Dworkin's claim that a woman has no standing before a rabbinical court:

Receiving a get will always be necessary for orthodox women who strictly observe halakha, but in Israel this formality applies to all Jewish women, whether they are secular or orthodox, conservative or reform.  All marriages must be performed by orthodox rabbis, therefore all divorces must be brought before the rabbinical courts.  These courts have tremendous power in Israel.  Their rulings bear the weight of law in this state where religion and government intersect.  [...]

Rabbinical courts and halakhic law do a disservice to women by placing women’s stories in the hands of men.  Women in Judaism points out how women are silenced under the current system: A woman tells her story to her husband.  He brings it to a rabbi.  The rabbi brings it to another rabbi, who considers the rulings of his predecessors.  Then he tells the original rabbi what to tell the husband.  The husband tells the woman whether she may still be his wife or not.  [...]

Unfortunately, when the law of the land is based on laws that are hundreds of years old and designed by male rabbis, as it is in Israel, the rights of women suffer and thousands of women remain "chained" to their husbands.
Francoise Galleto, The Chained Women: When Religion and the State Intersect  www.gwu.edu/~medusa/2001/policy1.html

A husband may revenge himself upon his wife by using the kedusha ketana to render their daughters unmarriageable:

Joseph and other observers were particularly appalled when the agunah crisis seemed to reach its highest point last spring, after two men in Brooklyn said that they married off their young daughters in a process known as kedusha ketana, or minor marriage.

The girls were not required to live with or even meet their purported husbands.  But they would require a get if they were ever to "remarry."  And a get would be impossible to obtain since their fathers refused to reveal the names of the men to whom they had married their daughters.

By reviving a long-dormant practice that had never before been used malevolently to punish estranged wives, Israel Goldstein and Yossi Sharashefsky had made agunot of their innocent daughters.

When Gita Goldstein was told more than two years ago that her husband had done this to her daughter, she says she "freaked out....  I was in shock.  I didn't know what the next step was, or why he did it," recalls the Montreal woman.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen, The Plight of the Agunah: Blackmail, bitterness and betrayal escalate as women struggle for Jewish divorce  users.aol.com/agunah/plight.htm

Sometimes it is not the husband who punishes by denying a woman her get, it is a rabbi:

And in some cases, a woman's venture into the civil courts is punished with a vengeance.

The husband of one woman from Monsey, a largely Orthodox suburb of New York City, wrote a get and deposited it with a Brooklyn rabbi, Shlomo Blumenkrantz, who refuses to give it to her because she went to civil court, according to Aranoff.

"In the meantime, the husband got a rabbinic heter and has an active social life," she says.  "The rabbi told the woman he has her get.  He's proud of what he's doing."

Blumenkrantz did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen, The Plight of the Agunah: Blackmail, bitterness and betrayal escalate as women struggle for Jewish divorce  users.aol.com/agunah/plight.htm

The clash of Orthodox Judaism against secular law sometimes produces sparks, but within the United States and not within Israel:

Let me begin by discussing a recent New York case where a Jewish woman was awarded damages because despite the fact that she had obtained a civil divorce on grounds of mental cruelty, her Orthodox husband refused to consent to a get for over 8 years.  As you may know, New York has had what is known as the "Get Law" for over 17 years, legislation, which is similar to that being proposed here in the UK.  This legislation provides that a civil divorce will not be granted unless all impediments to the remarriage of the partner have been removed.  Appalled by the husband's behaviour, the judge stated, and I quote, "The State of New York has made painfully clear that it will not tolerate perversion of the Jewish Get process into an unconscionable instrument of coercion by husbands who have the sole power to cause delivery thereof, a situation putting wives at the mercy of unscrupulous, often sadistic husbands".  In this case, despite the fact that according to New York law the wife was entitled to one half of the marital property, including the marital home, she signed an agreement waiving her property rights in exchange for the husband giving her a get.  Despite this agreement, the husband refused to give the get.  When she turned to the Civil Court for help, the judge was so outraged that he awarded her 100% of the marital assets.  Describing the husband's behaviour, the judge said, "Not content to use the awesome coercive power he possesses as the male in the process to jam an "unfair agreement" down his wife's throat, the husband has gone further.  For good measure and with no further economic goodies to extract from her since the coerced agreement took away virtually everything from her, he has tortured his wife for an additional eight years simply out of spite by persisting in his refusal to deliver the get even after agreeing to do so in exchange for this agreement".  Confronted by the dual outrages of greed and spite, the judge stated that the courts have reached zero tolerance for this sadistic practice.
Sharon Shenhav, JD, Seeking Halachic Solutions to the Problems of Get and Agunah, The Agunot Campaign, London, 13-Nov-2000  www.agunot-campaign.org.uk/Sharon_Shenhav.htm

It would appear from the above that Orthodox Judaism is misogynistic, that Israeli treatment of women is dominated by Orthodox Judaism, and for this reason that Israeli treatment of women is also misogynistic.  At the same time, your Justice Minister and Attorney General, Irwin Cotler, is a supporter of Israel from whose lips the public never hears the words "agunah" or "get" or "heter" or "kedusha ketana."  Also clashing with the notion that Irwin Cotler "reaches out to women" is his taking no notice of the ten thousand women from the former Soviet Union that Israel has forced into sex slavery, as you can see being admitted by Suzanne Goldenberg in your copy of my 03-Jun-2004 letter to Irwin Cotler, Please address the issue of Jewish men trafficking Ukrainian women: "Earlier this year Amnesty International reported that 10,000 women from the former Soviet Union had been virtually enslaved in Israel in the past 10 years" www.ukar.org/cotler/cotler02.html.

If Irwin Cotler "reaches out to women," then he does so in some abstract and insubstantial sense, while at the same time demonstrating an extraordinary capacity to blind himself to their suffering, and demonstrating a reprehensible predilection to neglect their welfare.  Irwin Cotler cannot be part of the Liberal team "reaching out to women" because he is seized with the conviction that it is his prerogative to trample their rights.

Lubomyr Prytulak

Hon. Irwin COTLER, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, 284 Wellington Street, Ottawa, ON  K1A 0H8