Youth champion agunot
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Busloads from all over Israel rally to protest unfair treatment by rabbinic courts.
Busloads of youth from all over the country will converge on Jerusalem's Great Synagogue, Heichal Shlomo, on Tuesday to protest what they call the rabbinic establishment's unjust treatment of agunot. The rally, which will be attended by MKs and a few rabbis, was organized by Matir Asurot [releasers of women in bondage], a group of young men and women, most still single, who say they want to breath new life into the fight for the rights of the aguna. Mavoi Satum [dead end] an agunot advocacy group, also sponsored the event as did International Coalition for Aguna Rights, Ne'emanei Torah Ve'Avoda, the The Israel Religious Action Center (Reform), Yad Le'Isha, Kolech, the Jewish Agency and the Mosaica Center for Religion, Society and Politics. However, Eli Ben-Dahan, administrative head of the rabbinic court system said the youths were being manipulated by groups interested in undermining rabbinic authority. "Somebody misled these young people. None of them bothered to contact me to get an evenhanded account of the situation," said Dahan. "I guess they don't want someone to tell the truth." Ben-Dahan admitted that there were a few rabbinic judges that were problematic. "There are two panels of judges out of five in Jerusalem that come late or do not come at all and do not do their job properly when they do show up. The same its true with one set of judges in Tel Aviv. "Still, the best way to take care of the problem is to petition Court Ombudswoman Tova Strassberg Cohen, not attack the entire system." Nevertheless, sources close to Ben-Dahan said that he was working behind the scenes to neutralize the most problematic panel of three judges headed by Rabbi Issachar Dov Hagar. Very few orthodox religious leaders will attend the event. The liberal Religious Kibbutz Movement's two yeshivot will be represented and controversial Tzohar Rabbi Yuval Cherlow will speak at the rally, so will MK Zevulun Orlev and MK Rabbi Michael Melchior. But all hesder yeshivot, religious pre-military academies and mainstream religious Zionist rabbis are conspicuously absent. Many rabbis share Ben-Dahan's concern that the rally will be used to disgrace the rabbinic establishment and undermine its powers. However, there is a strong grassroots movement among religious Zionist youth to attend the rally. These youth are expected to make up more than half of the participants. Secular MKs who will attend include Ronnie Bar-On (Kedima), Yuli Tamir (Labor), and Michael Eitan (Likud). Uzi Dayan will also attend. Most of the youth groups who gave official confirmation they would attend are secular (Bnei Akiva will send a representative) and secular pre-military academies. The Reform Movement's Telem Youth Group will also take part in the rally as will the secular branch of the Scouts. Zaki Djemal, 18, of Jerusalem, who learns at the Mayan Baruch Leadership Institute in the Upper Galilee, and is one of the driving forces behind Tuesday's rally, called the agunot problem a disease. "It's not just the religious community's problem. It is a human rights issue," said Djemal. "When a woman is blackmailed by her husband and supported by state employees [rabbinic judges], that's a human rights violation. When a beaten wife cannot get away from her violent husband because uncooperative rabbinic judges refuse to force him to give a divorce certificate, that is a human rights violation." Djemal said he got involved with championing the rights of agunot because he "could not stand to see the Jewish religion distorted by a small group of haredi judges who are completely out of touch with the majority of Israeli society". Djemal said the goal of the rally was to generate public discussion that would lead to solutions to the aguna problem. One of the suggestions is establishing a separate rabbinic divorce court system, similar to the special conversion courts that were established two years ago, that would be manned by orthodox rabbinic judges more sensitive to the plight of the aguna. "Only a radical revamping of the entire rabbinic court system will do the trick," said a divorce lawyer familiar with rabbinic judges. But according to Ben-Dahan the scope of the aguna problem is exaggerated by organizations such as Mavo'i Satum and Matir Asurot. "There are 9,500 divorces on average annually," said Ben-Dahan. "In 96% of the cases a settlement is reached within 300 days. "In only 4% of the cases does the divorce process take longer than 300 days." However, Rachel Azaria, head of Mavo'i Satum, said that Ben-Dahan was quoting from old data that is being scrutinized by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstraus. "We are constantly swamped with calls from women encountering difficulties in the rabbinic courts," said Azaria. Azaria argued that the problem is much more widespread than claimed to be by Ben-Dahan, who she called "a dear man who lacked the power to make real changes". Azaria said that even in "good" rabbinic courts, such as in Beersheba and Zefad, judges seem to lack the basic understanding of life's complexities. "They force the woman to prove her husband's infidelity, even in cases when the husband is violent, instead of accepting the woman's claim that she simply does not want to live with her husband anymore. "Why shouldn't a woman's desire for divorce be respected by the court?" Azaria, herself an orthodox Jew, said she rejected Ben-Dahan's claim that the aim of Tuesday's rally was to bash the rabbinic establishment. She said her goal was precisely the opposite - to make sure orthodox Jewish law remains relevant. "I believe we have an opportunity now to revamp rabbinic courts within the framework of halacha. If we squander this chance than secular Israelis will find a solution outside the halacha. That would create an irreparable rift in Israeli society." However, sources close to the rabbinic courts who admitted there was a dire need for radical revamping were skeptical about the efficacy of Tuesday's rally. "Ever since Ben Gurion secular political parties have had an interest in giving the haredi and religious parties 'job fiefdoms' in exchange for support on other issues," said the source. "For instance, we'll support your candidate in the Rabbinic Judge Appointing Committee if you support our candidate in the Committee for the Appointment of Judges. "Secular politicians also have an interest in letting the rabbinic courts deteriorate to the point where there will be no choice but to replace them with a secular court system."