Why a Market for Violence Exists

Oct. 15, 2013

By Netty C. Gross-Horowitz

On Thursday, FBI agents arrested 10 men, including two orthodox rabbis, charged with extortion and other crimes for taking fees as high as $100,000 to kidnap and torture husbands who refuse to give their wives gets. They were ordered held without bail.

Netty C. Gross-Horowitz, co-author with Susan M. Weiss, of "Marriage and Divorce in the Jewish State: Israel's Civil War," published by HBI, reacts:

I am not condoning the violence, kidnapping or torture described in multiple news articles. However, I wish the FBI also investigated the many Jewish women who were blackmailed into obtaining " gets" or wasted precious years waiting for this document because the terms offered by her or her family were insufficient.

The FBI, it appears, did not become involved in those cases because the get-denied women didn't hit anyone. They or their fathers just paid quietly. According to American authorities, there is a sharp division between religion and state. Women have an option: it's called civil marriage and divorce. It's irrelevant to the U.S. authorities if the woman wants a certain religious document. It's like asking the G-men to arrest a synagogue beadle because you found out that he conspired with another beadle not to give you an aliyat Torah. Jewish stuff. The FBI only became involved now, it seems, because, violence and money were at stake and it began to smell like Jewish racketeering.

What really drives the burgeoning "industry" in "get-obtaining" is adherence to the ancient texts, written for ancient gender identities. It states that a Jewish man has the power to deliver a get, Jewish bill of divorce, when he feels like it and of his free will. Unhelpful, devout rabbis who allow this policy for their own reasons, are also to blame. Agunot, the term for chained wives, are forced to deal with both civil and religious courts so they don’t know if they are coming or going.

Historically, in the shtetl, and bigger towns where Jews lived, violence was used against recalcitrant Jewish husbands and the authorities turned a blind eye. In Israel, where there is no civil marriage and divorce, the religious authorities (in Jewish cases, rabbinical courts judges,) can't beat up people but they can put sanctions on men, from withholding their credit cards and driver’s licenses to jail time. Recently, the civil family court, has fined such men. But the problem in Israel, among Jews, is that the law is rarely invoked by the rabbis even after the get is denied for fear that it violates the "free-will" issue. Fines by the civil courts are also disparaged by the rabbis.

In Israel an industry of private investigators has sprung up to fill the void. If a man or a woman is caught red handed having an extra-marital love affair or being gay, an immediate demand for a get is ordered by the rabbis.

If recalcitrant husbands in the U.S. knew they could not get away with withholding a get for cash, or better property and custodial terms, there would be no "market" for beatings. The get ought not to be subject to withholding or blackmail. American family court judges have to realize, and many do, that withholding a get is not a religious civil right but a civil wrong which will lead to more crime. A religious Jewish woman cannot be chained to a twisted man forever.

Susan WeissSusan M. Weiss, co-author with Netty C. Gross-Horowitz of "Marriage and Divorce in the Jewish State: Israel’s Civil War," published by HBI,speaks at Brandeis at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12. For more information, visit the HBI website.

As part of a collaboration between the HBI's Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law and the School of Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, supported by the Bridging Voices Program of the British Council, we present a series of invited reflections on the intersection of Gender, Religion and Equality in Public Life from activists and scholars around the world. Contributors have been asked to reflect upon the ways in which conflicts over gender, religion and participation impact their work and inform their understanding of events in the news. They are particularly asked to consider how religious norms around gender shape civi policy making, adjudication and women's capacity to fully participate in public political and ritual life.