July 12, 2020

Thinking Outside the Chains to Free Agunot and End Iggun

By Shulamit S. Magnus

The problem with power is that there is no speaking truth to it when it holds all the cards.—Dahlia Lithwick

Editor’s note: This is Part II of a blog about the aguna issue. It shows that approaches currently in use have long been tried and have failed to solve the problem, and proposes solutions that would free current agunot and end iggun. Part I discussed the underpinnings of iggun in halakha and some of the politics around the failure to end it.

The Unilateral Power of Men

Iggun (the state of being so chained) is caused by the sacrosanct, unilateral, exclusive power of Jewish men in the halakhic system to contract, and end marriage. This being the case, attempts to pressure, cajole, punish, or penalize men who withhold gittin—core tactics of aguna (Jewish woman chained in marriage against her will) advocacy organizations– not only miss the point. Such efforts, however well intentioned, feed and exacerbate the problem by reinforcing the abusive husband’s awareness of his power. They do the same for the all-male rabbinic courts, both of whom become the central focus when such courts order men to issue a gett and the men refuse, despite sanctions which, outside of Israel, are social (shunning); and inside Israel include job loss, freezing bank accounts, and jail. While some men accede to pressure, others respond with even more resolute refusal. In one infamous case, that of Tzviya Gorodetsky, the husband sat in an Israeli jail for more than two decades until a private rabbinic court annulled the marriage, finally freeing Tzviya. In the meantime, agunot in such cases remain not only chained but sidelined to male power struggles—secondary patriarchal victimization atop the first.

Halakhic Exceptions Abound, but Not for Agunot

There is another reason to cease the tactics used by aguna advocate organizations: a proven record of failure. The problem is not lack of halakhic expedients to end iggun but the refusal of rabbinic courts to apply them. Aguna advocates often cite the many creative ways that halakhists over the generations have found to circumvent conflicts between biblical and rabbinic law and changing realities–  about business dealings, Sabbath, festival, and other observances—but not about freeing agunot and ending iggun. These are summarized in the following crie de coeur by the group, “Unchain My Heart”: 

 Susan Aranoff and Rivka Haut, veteran aguna activists and authors of The Wedlocked Agunot write, “…halakhic solutions to [iggun] exist. Over the ages, wise rabbis have devised ways of easing difficulties caused by halakhic strictures,” and they cite one of the expedients named in the above list, heter iska, “which structures forbidden interest as profit from an investment.” It would certainly not cheer them, or other aguna activists in the U.S., Israel, and elsewhere, to learn that these words, almost verbatim, were pronounced in Europe a hundred years ago.

The problem of agunot was a central topic at conferences organized by women’s organizations in the 1920s: Bnos Agudath Israel (in Lodz); the Vienna Women’s Conference that was part of the second World Congress of Agudath Israel; the World Conference of Jewish Women (in Hamburg); the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) that met in Zurich. Dr. Ada Reichenstein, a delegate from Lemberg (Poland) to the World Congress of Jewish Women in Vienna in 1923, described the “question of Jewish marriage and divorce [as] an [eastern European] catastrophe,” referencing some 25,000 women in one region of Poland alone whose husbands had disappeared during World War I and who could not remarry because the deaths had not been confirmed by halakhic criteria. At the 1927 International Conference for the Protection of Jewish Girls and Women in London, Bertha Pappenheim, the quite Orthodox founder and leader of the Jewish Women’s Organization of Germany,  denounced the failure of rabbis on this issue, saying: 

We have at this meeting several rabbis from Eastern Europe, and I had hoped that they would listen to us and do something to improve the difficult position of so many Jewish women. It is not only a question of ‘agunoth’ but also of facilitating divorce. I had hoped that a Sanhedrin of Rabbis would come together and that they would introduce the needed ritual reforms and re-organize Jewish ceremonial dealing with this matter. That is what I had hoped, but I have been told that we must not expect it, for the rabbis do not have the power to introduce the changes asked for [my emphasis]. In that case we must continue to flounder within this ‘golus’ [exile], but it is a ‘golus’ within a ‘golus’.

As Naomi Seidman notes, “Pappenheim was not persuaded that the rabbis were truly powerless to address the problem of the aguna; she was particularly offended that rabbis seemed willing to reform Jewish law to make business dealings easier, while claiming that the same could not be done to ease the way for women.” Leah (Levin-Epstein) Proshansky scored the problem of agunot for the Warsaw-based monthly, Froyen Shtim (Women’s Voice), whose inaugural issue—in 1925– called attention to the problem, in particular, that of abandoned wives left undivorced by men who emigrated. 

Seidman writes:

Proshansky… excoriated such husbands… but reserved [her] harshest criticism for the rabbinic leadership that treated the problem with indifference… Rabbis were quick to criticize women for succumbing to immodest fashion trends, [but] were silent [about] abandonment… Proshansky [rejected] the notion that the Polish rabbinate sympathized with abandoned women but was unable to help them… In Proshansky’s words, rabbinic literature is full of…  accommodations to urgent circumstances. She mentions as an example heter iska, the rabbinic ruling rendering it permissible to lend money with interest despite a biblical prohibition… For men saddled with mentally ill wives, rabbis found a way [heter meah rabbanim] to allow the husband to divorce his wife without her consent. 

But with regard to women denied a gett, with a few notable exceptions, the rabbinic answer was then, as it remains, “sorry, nothing we can do.”

It does not take advanced feminist consciousness to note that normalizing women as perpetual, inevitable victims of male privilege and abuse accords with broader patriarchal attitudes; that the reason iggun has not been resolved is because it goes to the heart of male control—ownership—of women; to the heart of patriarchy, in short. This is why rabbinic creativity has eluded this problem while deftly maneuvering around so many others. This is why continuing to appeal to the same rabbinic system that perpetuates the problem to remedy it is not only futile but counterproductive. We don’t need theory to see this; we have history.

Gett Extortion

Gett extortion is nothing new, either. Records from the pre-Zionist yishuv in Palestine as well as from eastern Europe document the demands of husbands for payoffs to grant gittin. Such extortion has become a full-fledged enterprise, abetted by rabbinic courts. Aranoff and Haut cite case after case of rabbinic courts in the U.S. operating to abet gett extortion, a phenomenon they call, “the open institutionalization of extortion.” “The idea,” they note, “that it is acceptable for men to put a price tag on the gett was so widely accepted that Rabbi Yehuda Levin, director of Get Free, a short-lived organization, unabashedly described himself as a ‘negotiator’ whose mission was to obtain a get for a woman at the lowest possible price” (for a fee, of course). Gett extortion, they report, “is so widely accepted by rabbis that they actually solicit ‘charitable’ donations for that purpose,” thereby encouraging the practice of hostage taking and blackmail of a particular, designated, population—women.

The State of Israel also turns a blind eye to and even endorses gett extortion. Rabbinical courts in Israel not only condone gett extortion but encourage it, in the words of Susan Weiss, Founder and Director of the Center for Women’s Justice, “…as a valid, efficient, and religiously acceptable method of divorce resolution. Blackmail does not invalidate a Jewish divorce” (unless, of course, such tactics are exercised by the wife, which would cast aspersions on the husband’s sacrosanct “free will” in the matter). 

“In a similar vein,” Weiss states, “the Supreme Court [of Israel] has upheld the validity of contracts [obtained in rabbinic divorce courts], in which women have waived their… property and legal interests in return for a writ of divorce, refusing to find that such divorce agreements were signed under duress;” one justice finding gett extortion no different than arrangements made in regular contract disputes—as if women are equal participants in the contract that is rabbinic marriage, with any say about its terms and responsible for making a bad deal.

Some rabbinic authorities have taken forthright and courageous positions, despite shunning and attacks on their integrity, to propose solutions both to prevent iggun and free agunot. Several eminent halakhic scholars—Rabbis Louis M. Epstein; Saul Lieberman; Eliezer Berkovits– proposed such solutions in the early and mid-20th century; these were adopted by the Conservative/ Masorti movement but rejected in Orthodoxy for political reasons: agreeing to implement halakhic decisions elaborated and accepted outside of the Orthodox establishment would confer legitimacy on the Conservative movement, another expression of male power struggles at the expense of women. Indeed, the acceptance or rejection of these expedients became a defining line between the Conservative and Orthodox movements as these were in formation in the U.S.—once again, the objectification of women.  

More recently, pioneering rabbis in the U.S. and Israel—Rabbis Emanuel Rackman, Simcha Krauss, Daniel Sperber and some others—have established their own courts in which they apply various methods to free agunot, not least, through retroactive annulment (which has no effect on the status of children of such marriages). 

Continuing to appeal to the system to deliver results other than those it has by pleading with the men who run it, whose male privilege immunizes them from ever sharing the predicament of agunot, is a demonstrably futile and demeaning, proposition. As Dahlia Lithwick puts it, “The problem with power is that there is no speaking truth to it when it holds all the cards.”

Current Approaches Exacerbate the Problem

Tinkering with this problem, much less continuing the same tactics that have—however inadvertently– become part of the problem and its perpetuation—is clearly not the way to go. Solutions exist both to prevent iggun, and to free agunot, now. Iggun is not caused by bad husbands or bad rabbis. It derives from kinyan and kiddushin, which degrade women’s full humanity, whether or not iggun eventuates, and which should be abolished on that ground alone. There are other ways, based on rabbinic traditions elaborated for men and therefore, treating both parties with equal status and concern, to enact Jewish marriage. One, proposed by Rabbi Rachel Adler, is adaptation of halakhic partnership law. Another, used by Rabbi Aviva Richman and her spouse, Tzemach Yoreh, uses nedarim and hatarat nedarim (halakhic vows—nothing like the emotional pronouncements used in Christian and other wedding ceremonies, but legally binding contracts, and their dissolution), for marriage and divorce, respectively. These proposals honor Jewish tradition by adapting rather than discarding it; by treating halakha as the serious praxis that those who elaborated it intended, but applying to its treatment of women the injunction, “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue”(Deut. 16:20); and by taking the radical statement of Genesis 1:27, which declares female and male as in the Divine Image and making it an imperative—halakhizing it. This verse, so unlike the one with which this essay opened, has not been halakhized, certainly, not with regard to women. But that neglect is reparable. Indeed, it can, must, become the charge for tikkun in our time. Women are in the Divine Image. That status is categorically incompatible with treating women as sex objects or as wards– never mind, hostages– of men; as anything but equal not to, but with men: authors of our own lives. If cultural conditions in previous eras precluded this insight, delivered, literally, from on high, awaiting us from the dawn of Creation, it is certainly available to us now, as is the charge to make it actionable, in norms of behavior. 

As for freeing agunot, now: women who married without even prenups (the best of which are no guarantee, but better than nothing)—and women who are agunot– must declare that, when they married, they did so without being warned that they could become agunot by entering into marriage via kinyan and kiddushin, and that, had this information been shared with them, they would have sought iron-clad protection from that possibility or refused the marriage; and that therefore, withholding this information constitutes a situation of mekah ta’ut: an agreement entered into on the basis of mistaken, misleading, incomplete, or deceptive information, which therefore, voids the marriage in the case of iggun. Women who married intended to marry, not to become hostages or subjects of extortion. They never gave informed consent to the latter situations; on the contrary, relevant knowledge was withheld from them that would have let them protect themselves from dire harm — a basic right in any contractual agreement under rabbinic law. Any woman whose husband withholds a gett or demands payment for it must have her marriage annulled immediately, upon demand—hers– on grounds of mekah ta’ut. Not giving a gett when one has been asked must trigger this action ipso facto. A gett withholder or a man who demands payment for one, would trigger the end of the marriage in those very acts. This would end iggun on the spot.

Kol yisrael arevot zo la’zot: All Jewish Women are Responsible for One Another:  What Call Does the Problem of Iggun Have on Jews Outside of Orthodoxy?

What responsibility do those outside of Orthodoxy have regarding this issue? 

Al ta’amod al dam re’ekha, the Torah (Lev. 19:16) teaches: do not stand by as the blood of your companion is shed. It is unthinkable that those outside of Orthodoxy would adopt a triumphalist stance about iggun because they were born into or subscribe to variants of Judaism which, one way or the other, have obviated the problem; or because they subscribe to no religious structure. Others of us were born into other variants and have profound attachments to them. Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women are entitled to individual freedom of conscience and freedom of religion no less than anyone else.

Jewish women must be arevot zo la’zot because, for all our differences, we share the predicament and complicated challenge of Otherness in a beloved tradition, in which we are both insiders and outsiders. We have different ways of dealing with that challenge but its dialectics and imperatives are our common inheritance as Jewish women. 

It is not only unrealistic but terribly unfair to say to Orthodox agunot, “Why don’t you just leave?” Such questions disregard the impact of family, of formal and informal education– of socialization and its internalization; the ties that bind women raised in any variant of Orthodoxy to their families and communities. It is to fly in the face of the very meaning of  “Orthodoxy,” which does not, as is commonly assumed, connote belief in the God of Torah, or even traditional observance, but rather, belief in the authority of the rabbis, past and (Orthodox) present. It is difficult to convey traditional reverence for great rabbis, their knowledge and piety, and for the authority of halakha, which is believed to derive from Moses at Sinai and to have been passed to them. Even when individual rabbis and rabbinic courts prove wanting, even very wanting, the fault is understood to be with them, not with the system as a whole. The very fact that significant reforms were enacted in halakha, including some—like the ketubba, which once benefitted women– abets this belief. Those of us outside of Orthodoxy must understand why seeing halakha as androcentric, patriarchal, and misogynistic is so difficult for insiders to see or accept. An entire edifice of belief, a world of meaning, a way of life, is threatened by it. 

Women who know no life outside of Orthodoxy have formal but rarely realistic choice to leave. To disavow the authority of halakha in the most fraught area of taboo—regarding gender and sex—is an extreme act with tremendous consequences, some of which– the label “adulteress,” the stigmatization of children as “mamzerim”– we have mentioned. To flout authority in this area is to risk alienation from parents, children, siblings; from friends; from the synagogue one has prayed in, the schools one has attended and which one’s children attend, and from which they will likely be expelled; the neighborhood one lives in; one’s job. This is not a decision about a law but about one’s entire life and sense of self, everything one has been taught, believed, lived, and loved. I know of no study of agunot, specifically, who have left the system and freed themselves but studies of ultra- and modern Orthodox Jews who have dropped out of that world for any number of reasons illustrate the difficulties and devastating price, emotional, familial, and financial, such people pay.  To posit a choice that Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women have to abandon halakha and the requirement of a gett, effectively, is to blame the victims rather than to appreciate, as in other situations of abuse, the complexity of women’s imbrication with the world in which they were raised and to work to find ways to lessen its abusive power over women. Orthodox (or any) women should not have to cease being who they are in order to be free of dead marriages and extortion.  

Half the Jewish world resides in the State of Israel, in which Jewish women, regardless of their religious beliefs or observance, are under the rule of halakha for divorce and have no kind of choice to leave the system. 

Iggun is not an Orthodox problem; it is a Jewish problem. And it is our responsibility, our duty, to solve it. 

When a problem is treated as intractable, that is what it becomes. We have become inured to “the aguna problem,” to shaking our heads at the latest egregious case, to fury and handwringing, to empty denunciations, empty not because they are insincere but because they achieve nothing—as if iggun was an ineluctable law of nature rather than a product of humans, amenable to solution. 

Solutions exist. We must educate against the use of kinyan and kiddushin for marriage—used also in Conservative Judaism. We must not only use but make known the use of alternatives at weddings; support agunot in demanding and using rabbis and rabbinic courts that use measures that free them, swiftly and assuredly; and for the use of measures that end iggun, once and for all. All this is attainable. 

We must liberate ourselves from learned helplessness. 

Let there be no more “Agunah Days,” which, however well intentioned, ritualize the victim status of women and contribute, however inadvertently, to the too-accepted notion that women’s victimization is normal and inevitable. 

Et la’asot: it is time to act, to end this. 

Shulamit MagnusShulamit Magnus is Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. Her work on the memoirs of Pauline Wengeroff won a National Jewish Book Award and a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Translation Award. She is a social and cultural historian of Jewish modernity in Europe, specializing in questions of identity, Jewish women’s history, and the workings of gender in Jewish societies. She lives in Jerusalem.

This essay is based on her chapter in a forthcoming book to be edited by Rachel Adler and Rachel Sabath Beit Halachmi.

When Divorce is a Mitzvah

By Layah Lipsker

Getting married under a chuppah is a beloved Jewish ritual, often paired with a festive hora. It is a mitzvah performed with much joy.  Sadly, some marriages will end in divorce. There is a mitzvah associated with divorce too, but less well known, and obviously not widely celebrated.  But maybe it should be. The ritual around Jewish divorce, the giving and receiving of a get, is a mitzvah that can bring spiritual closure and remind us of one of the sacred themes of Judaism, the gift of autonomous choice and personal freedom.

We tend to think of mitzvot as happy occasions or spiritual highs.  But the word mitzvah does not mean good deed, it means commandment. A mitzvah is an opportunity to infuse life’s mundane and important moments with transcendence.  A mitzvah is a reminder that spiritual intent and meaning can inform every part of our lives, in joyous times and in challenging times. According to Kabbalah, Judaism’s rituals around death and mourning help ease the transition of the soul to its next phase, and bring comfort to the mourners.  In the same way, the mitzvah of giving and receiving a get can bring comfort and help ease this painful time of transition. The words said during the get process can be healing, as they explicitly release the couple from the vows of marriage and pronounce them available to new relationships.

In my work as director of the Boston Agunah Taskforce, I have seen women, from every background and affiliation, face a recalcitrant spouse who uses the Get to inflict pain, retain control, or negotiate a better settlement.  For five years, we have advised hundreds of women; through accompaniment to the Boston Rabbinical Court, in person and by phone, and through questions posted anonymously on our support site, getyourget.com.

Unlike a long drawn out civil process, the get process is usually quick and can bring some measure of closure at a very challenging time. Sadly, many men and women are denied the opportunity to perform this mitzvah and move on with their lives.  Get abuse, a Jewish form of domestic violence, is often part of a pattern of abuse and control that begins soon after the wedding.

Since the Taskforce was formed, as a project of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, we have learned a lot about get abuse.  Contrary to the prevailing myth, get abuse is not only an Orthodox problem and women are not the only victims. Both men and women can suffer from Get abuse, although the consequences for women are much worse under Jewish law.  Get abuse is prevalent throughout our Jewish community, as either party may seek the spiritual closure a get can provide for various reasons.

But the most important thing we have learned is that couples often get bad advice about when to obtain a get.  Less religious couples tend to worry about the get only after their civil divorce is finalized. More religious couples are often told that they cannot begin their civil proceedings until after resolution in a Rabbinical court.  Both are mistaken. “GetReady” is a groundbreaking initiative of the Taskforce, encouraging couples to link the get to their civil divorce, by inserting a legal clause that helps ensure Get compliance.  The reason is simple. Rabbinical courts, outside of Israel, do not have the power to compel either party to participate in the Get process. Through legal education and public awareness, we hope to make this legal clause standard in every Jewish divorce.  In our experience, including language about the get at the beginning of a divorce negotiation, reduces the possibility of using it as a negotiating tool when tensions worsen.

Rebecca is one women who was helped through the Taskforce.  She was married for 11 years and has three beautiful boys. She suffered neglect and verbal abuse, beginning with her first pregnancy.  When she finally had the emotional and financial capacity to leave, her husband swore that he would never give her a Get, thus preventing her from ever remarrying under Jewish law.   Rebecca believed her community rabbis would find a way to free her, especially after she gave them evidence of serial affairs. Sadly, it’s been three years since the separation, and she is still an “agunah,” a woman chained to a marriage that is over while she is unable to move forward with her life.  When we met Rebecca, she had seen many rabbis, but had not filed for divorce or contacted a lawyer. We advised her to file and to include the GetReady clause. For the first time, Rebecca sees a path to a new life, and her husband has agreed in writing to giving the Get.

Sometimes divorce is a mitzvah, and our Jewish community needs to help ensure that this spiritual closure is available to every man and woman who wants it.  On March 20th, we will mark International Agunah Day. It’s time to end get abuse and make the GetReady clause standard for every divorcing Jewish couple. If you know of someone thinking about divorce, please point them to our website, getyourget.com, for more information on GetReady, or to ask a question to one of our get consultants.

Layah Lipsker is the director of the Boston Agunah Task Force, a project of HBI.

HBI Thanks Founding Board Member, Janet Zolot

By Amy Powell

When Janet Zolot announced her retirement earlier this year from the HBI Board of Advisors, it was truly the end of an era for HBI. Zolot, an original board member, has been here for the entire 21-year journey. More than that, she was an integral part of HBI’s founding.

To Zolot, getting involved in Jewish women’s causes came naturally. It was part of her upbringing. Her mother was president of the Philadelphia chapter of Hadassah and her father was president of the Beth Sholom Synagogue in suburban Philadelphia, the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

“I grew up in a world where everyone was involved in doing things for the Jewish community,” said Zolot. “My mother was so positive about her Hadassah involvement that I went to the meetings and ended up as president of Philadelphia Hadassah with 37 groups and 10,000 people. It was quite a responsibility.”

It was during her years as National Hadassah vice-president that Hadassah formed the National Commission on American Jewish Women, an effort to find out what was known about Jewish women. Chaired by Brandeis Professor Shulamit Reinharz, who later became the HBI founding director,  the group tried to answer questions about what concerned American Jewish women, if they felt like part of the Jewish community, if their Jewish identity, Judaism or Israel was meaningful to them and how to address their concerns, strengthen their connections and bring greater Jewish meaning to women’s lives. “It was a really exciting, forward thinking time for National Hadassah,” Zolot noted. The Commission hired Brandeis Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, who later became HBI’s co-director, to oversee the research.

When the research was to be presented for the first time in public at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federation, Zolot feared that no one would be interested.

“There were 22 concurrent sessions at our time slot and I was about to have a nervous breakdown, thinking no one would come. We had a decent sized room and to my surprise, we had to start bringing in extra chairs. There were over 250 people there and it was really a thrill, just amazing,” Zolot said.

At the time, Shirley Kalb was Hadassah’s director of strategic planning, and Zolot described her as “a brilliant woman who knew everyone in the Jewish community.”  Zolot remembers sitting in Kalb’s New York office with Reinharz and discussing the results after this initial reception. They all believed that too little was known about Jewish women and so much more was needed. Reinharz suggested that they form a research institute to learn more and the result was the founding of the International Research Institute on Jewish Women, (which later changed its name to HBI) at Brandeis University in January 1997. Established with a generous grant from Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America Inc., the IRIJW represented a bold venture for both Brandeis University and Hadassah. It was a natural fit for Zolot, who had been involved from the beginning to continue with HBI, bridging gaps between the Hadassah and HBI.

“Academia had not been part of my life after college and I found it extremely stimulating, Shula had a magical touch, Sylvia brought her unique interests and capabilities and the meetings were always an intellectually stimulating experience. We felt that we were accomplishing something worthwhile.” Zolot said.

Some of the early programs included learning more about Jewish women from Arab lands. The research was presented at the Hadassah National Convention, then replicated in communities through Hadassah chapters. Other programs on Queen Esther and on Jewish fertility issues were researched at HBI and shared through Hadassah.

HBI Director Lisa Fishbayn Joffe said of Zolot, “We are so grateful for the enormous impact she has had on HBI.  She was part of the initial group at Hadassah that initiated Voices for Change and generated the vision and resources for HBI.  In my new role, I often meet women from Hadassah groups around New England who tell me about the excitement of working with Jane on this. She has also been a supporter of many of our innovative programs including the program to bring Scholars in Residence from the former Soviet Union, that has now created a steady pipeline of applicants. Her enormous wisdom will be missed.”

Leslie Gaffin, the current liaison with Hadassah on the HBI Board, said, “Jane has been a pillar of support and knowledge for HBI.  I want to thank her for all the help she gave me as I assumed a board position. Her wise counsel and depth of understanding always led to creative solutions. She was certainly a great role model for me and I am sure for many others. I wish her good health and satisfaction in all her future endeavors.”

Zolot said she felt so proud of the feature story that appeared in Hadassah Magazine, HBI, A Pioneer in Gender Studies, on the 20th anniversary of HBI that she began to consider her retirement. “Now that we have passed our 20th year I feel that it’s time for me to retire from the HBI Board. I was present at creation when Shula, Shirley Kalb z’l and I met in Shirley’s office. I was skeptical but between Shula’s enthusiasm and Shirley’s determination I was swept up in the momentum that proceeded nonstop. It’s been an enriching experience to have been part of the years of innovation and growth and I wish for continued success in the future.”

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

New Media and Fourth-Wave Feminism

By Shlomit Lir

Almost 10 years ago, I initiated a conference at Bar Ilan University, The Internet as a Platform for a Feminist Social Revolution, where I brought forth a view of new media’s potential for initiating a great feminist change. At the time this view was not uncommon among women activists who specialized in internet technologies and were aware of the power of the net to disseminate ideas to the public. I had been writing at that time about the internet as a tool for the fourth wave of feminism, and as a way of overcoming the traditional gatekeepers which excluded women and their ideas from the social discourse. I was fascinated by the ability to have a public arena for the voices of women and for forming support groups in private digital forums that allow the sharing of stories, experiences and feelings.

Looking back, I am much less optimistic. It is not that I think that the vision manifested in the conference’s title was completely erroneous, or that the net is not an initiator of a new feminist wave, but I recognize the power of the backlash. I am more aware that it is possible to use the net to mislead the masses and reproduce oppressive mechanisms and that feminists turning to the internet as a means for change need to be prepared.

In 2011, in Israel, the internet played a major role in what came to be known as the “Camps Protest” — a mass demonstration which brought, at one point, a half a million people to the streets in a march against the high cost of housing. The protest was inspiring not only because it was the first mass Israeli protest organized on Facebook but also because it was instigated and mainly led by women.

The vision of a feminist social revolution that was referred to in the 2009 conference’s name did not come true that summer in Israel. However, the Camps Protest did bring about a greater awareness of social justice. At the same time, it demonstrated how women can gain public power and leadership positions through online and offline activism, but also how they can lose this power once the issues they are promoting are no longer in the public eye. Daphni Leef, who was the lead organizer of a tent camp in central Tel Aviv, moved to the background of public events once the protests where over, while Stav Shaffir, another protest leader, preserved her public influence by moving from grassroots to the establishment and becoming a member of Knesset.

The power of the internet as an engine for social change was also apparent in the Arab Spring — a grassroots protest where women played major roles in planning, promoting and participating in demonstrations. In addition to mass events, smaller protests led by women in the Arab world gained recognition through the net. In Saudi Arabia, women filmed themselves driving, despite the official prohibition, and posted the video clips to Twitter. In Iran, women are bravely removing their hijabs in public, and online platforms are being used to spread the photos of their protest around the world.

Again, the lesson is not only the ways women can use the internet to promote social change. The events show how, instead of talking in terms of a revolution which brings about social change, it is often more accurate to talk in terms of a long process – with many setbacks. After more more than 10 years, Saudi women gained a promise that they would be allowed to drive by June 2018. In Iran, no change has been perceived – yet. After great hardships, the Arab Spring paved, in some countries, new paths allowing more liberation. In others, the change is yet to come.

While some of the women activists, such as Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman, gained worldwide recognition for promoting change, others, like the women who led the demonstrations in Egypt, returned to what is considered their traditional roles once the protests ended.

The reality of a long and arduous process of change, in which the net is one of many factors, is also apparent in the #metoo movement. This movement, which was originally initiated in 2006 by the social activist Tarana Burke on Myspace, has leapt into worldwide consciousness in 2017.

The power of the #metoo movement is not in question. It is a milestone in feminist history, showing how it is possible to advance feminist and social progress through digital grapevines, where the voice of one woman who shares her experiences inspires others to do the same, thus, creating a critical mass that cannot be ignored — at least for some time.

The ability to create universal change in regards to sexual harassment, social justice, and welfare policies demonstrates how a discourse that was previously limited to a relatively small group of activists has the potential to become an inseparable part of the public agenda with the help of digital means.

It is undeniable that social media plays an important role in assisting women in finding a voice, becoming socially active and more publicly involved. It allows an open platform for the voices of oppressed and marginalized groups, who are often silenced by male dominance in the traditional media.

With open and accessible communication channels, women of all walks of life can share their worldview without the obstacles of geography and time. They can create interactive and immediate contact with activists from around the world in a manner which helps feminist ideas to turn viral. There is no doubt that Facebook pages, groups and blogs have become focal points for discussion and influence among feminists. Online campaigns against sexist commercials create online protest actions that bring different voices to center stage and often get immediate results. Traditional media, which does not want to lag behind, reports on the events that take place on social media, enabling feminist concepts to gain a place in the larger public conscious.

However, the greater the progress, the greater the backlash. Aside from the ability to create some of the ideal conditions for an alternative public sphere, to manage a public democratic discourse, and be a source of social change that challenges patriarchal social forms, the internet often reproduces women’s and minorities’ oppression and sometimes magnifies it.

Just as we struggled many years ago with print encyclopedias that often excluded important female voices, data shows that we continue to struggle online as the same dynamic is repeated on Wikipedia. Again, as research demonstrates, human knowledge often becomes equated with male knowledge through covert mechanisms of exclusion.

Parallel to advertising that demeans women, the internet allows free unrestricted consumption of pornography. It is all too easy to put out a false narrative that will be shared virally as if it were true, causing grave harm.  And, it too easy for fake users to create identities devoted to cyberbullying and sexual harassment online. In the wrong hands, the internet becomes a tool of ruling the masses through simplistic tweets that are designed to create an impression and heat up the crowds instead of enabling serious discussion and thought.

The Way Forward

In order to lead the new wave of feminism, there is a need to initiate procedures for promoting the visibility and voices of women in cyberspace. My research shows that digital literacy which seems easy and obvious to many, poses an obstacle for women who did not overcome the digital divide or who feel left behind by a world that had advanced without them. There are many voices that are still not heard and which can be lost to her-story simply because of technological gaps and discomfort. We must make these voices heard by teaching more women digital literacy and encouraging them to participate and share their stories.

It is in our power to change the discourse, not to surrender to the reproduction of old power structures, to pornography, to exclusion, and to weakening representations of women. It is in our power to be prepared for backlashes. The act of creating a new world of representations of active, powerful, thinking women — that reflects the billions of women who make the world a better place — lies on our shoulders. It is upon us to write, to show our strengths, and to produce a new visual language. The sooner we embrace technology as a tool for voice in workshops for programing and for writing online so women gain fluency and comfort in this medium, the greater the influence can be.

Technology waits for no one. As in offline reality, those who go in first make the rules. We need to make sure women are on board.

Shlomit Lir, a visiting scholar at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis, is a gender and digital media researcher. Her Ph.D., “Gendering Digital Identity: The Establishment of Voice Among Female Activists in New Media Platforms,” is based on research examining the processes of establishing the public self as an aspect of women’s entrance into the digital sphere. Lir is the initiator and CEO of Women Activists Online, an initiative designed to promote women leadership by the use of social media. Among the books she has edited are In Visible Ink (Hebrew, 2015) and To My Sister: Mizrahi Feminist Identity (Hebrew, 2007).

Mainstreaming Refugee Women’s Rights Advocacy

By Tally Kritzman-Amir

Asylum-Seeking Women as Women: Mainstreaming Refugee Women’s Rights Advocacy

For many years I’ve been working with asylum seekers, men and women, in Israel. A few years ago a client – an African asylum-seeking woman in her early 40s – came to our office. Her set of issues, not necessarily unique to her, highlighted the need for us to work differently to better serve this population.

She had kids, and was a victim of domestic violence. She was wondering whether she should report her husband’s abuse, fearing one the one hand for her children’s and her own safety, and on the other for the economic stability of the family. She was afraid that if she was to report her husband, he would be detained and she would have to support her family alone on her low wages. When she did eventually report him, the spiral she feared ensued, but it was even worse than she expected.

He was indeed detained and indicted, but the worst came after he completed his sentence. He was moved to a “residency center,” similar to an immigration detention facility. In theory, he was free to go in and out, however, he had to spend the night there, away from his children. The facility was remote and inaccessible by public transportation. Then, he was approached with a suggestion. He would receive $3,500 if he agreed to go to a third country with which Israel has an agreement to take African asylum seekers off its hands. Once he agreed to the deal, his wife – our clinic’s client – was left to provide for her children on her own, without their father. Additionally, she had no contact with her husband and no access to the bank account in his name (though her salary had been deposited in it for years), and she was unable to divorce him.

Our legal clinic was unsure what we could do for her. We were used to fighting for people’s status, but clearly this client needed so much more than that. Being undocumented was only one dimension of her personal drama. What could we do to treat the issues this woman confronted more holistically?

The life experiences of this client were not new to me.  A few years ago, I took part in a research project documenting the difficult lives of asylum-seeking women in Israel. Through that research, we concluded that the vulnerability of this population justifies their treatment as a discrete group within the asylum-seeking community, but they are rarely treated as such. That research also showed that feminist organizations are not inclined to engage with asylum-seeking women, and that advocacy to promote women’s rights is conducted within the confines of the “ghetto” of NGOs devoted to migrants’ rights and clinics. This renders asylum-seeking women unable to enjoy the rights feminism has achieved within Israeli society.

The Coalition on Asylum-Seeking Women and Children in Israel

The limits of our abilities to help such a client, together with the findings of that research, resulted in the creation of the Coalition on Asylum-Seeking Women and Children in Israel, which has been operating since September 2016. It consists of 15 NGOs and legal clinics with the main goals of promoting migrants’ and refugees’ rights, women’s rights, and children’s rights. The coalition focuses on providing legal services in different fields of law, including outside of our comfort zone of immigration and refugee law, in the unknown territories of family law. We also deal with issues of the social and economic rights of asylum-seeking women and children. This includes the submission of an amicus brief on behalf of a dozen women and children’s rights NGOs, on the constitutionality of the deposit law, a law that came into force in May 2017. According to the deposit law, 20% of the (already low) salary of asylum seekers will be transferred to a deposit made available to the asylum seeker when she leaves Israel. This economic measure had a dramatic effect on already-vulnerable women and children. Finally, the coalition’s member organizations have put together demonstrations against the recent plans to deport African asylum seekers from Israel to third countries. Such demonstrations included a demonstration on International Women’s Day attended by disempowered Israeli and asylum-seeking women and a protest march of Israeli and African children.

The Feminist Engagement with Asylum-Seeking Women

Over the years, feminist engagement with asylum-seeking women has centered on an effort to identify these women as a discrete category of asylum seekers, worthy of protection under the refugee convention. Such efforts have focused on demonstrating that the forms of persecution women typically endure are unique and that protection gaps within the refugee convention and within the definition of refugees heighten women’s risk. This is due to the absence of gender as a convention-recognized ground for asylum, and the general male-oriented convention grounds, both in text and interpretation. Feminist efforts have thus sought to argue that refugee law should protect women from acts of persecution carried out by private actors in the private sphere, often abetted by lax enforcement of state laws. Such efforts have proven to be somewhat fruitful. Since the mid-1980s, many Western democracies recognize practices such as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, child marriages, trafficking, domestic violence, sexual violence and others as recognized forms of persecution. Women who seek asylum from these types of persecution in these specific countries are often given protection, even when said persecution is not directly attributable to the state.

Recently there has been a call to further deepen the engagement of refugee law with feminist theory, to promote a feminist reading of core concepts in refugee law, such as the concept of exclusion or surrogate state protection. Such cases highlight the fact that these concepts not only disproportionately affect women, but also influence women and men differently and can thus benefit from application of feminist methodologies.

The Current Research Project

In my current research project, I draw from the work with refugees and asylum-seeking women in Israel to argue that international refugee law would benefit from an additional form of engagement with feminism. In particular, I argue that refugee law should not remain at the level of status, or even at the level of the International Refugee Law framework. Instead of simply introducing feminist theory into International Refugee Law, I suggest that the underlying commonality among all women, regardless of status, would benefit from conjoining advocacy efforts on behalf of refugee women with those on behalf women more generally.

Such a legal perspective, arising from more fundamental human (women’s) rights would encourage the development of a legal framework that would allow the promotion of a deeper protection for asylum-seeking women, changing the legal focus from questions of status in determining whether someone, male or female, qualifies for protection as a refugee, to a broader focus on an entire set of necessary civil, social, economic and cultural rights. It also creates opportunities for solidarity between asylum-seeking women and other women, including other immigrants, citizens and residents, national minorities, and general feminist and women’s rights groups. Moreover, such a linkage will allow asylum-seeking women to benefit from the progress already achieved by feminist movements regarding women’s rights, rather than marginalizing them and confining them to seeking rights exclusively as refugees.

The call for mainstreaming the discourse of refugee rights into the discourse of women’s rights offers an important theoretical contribution that goes beyond the discussion of asylum-seeking women’s rights. The overarching question is this: Is it strategically preferable to advocate for the rights of refugees via instruments of International Human Rights, rather than via International Refugee Law?

In examining this question, I find significant arguments in favor of abandoning the prevailing view that International Refugee Law is a separate branch of international law to be applied and interpreted according to its own fundamental concepts, and separately from other areas of international law. Since the adoption of other human rights instruments, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1966, as well as regional human rights instruments, and, in this context, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, this tendency to view refugee law separately from international human rights law has been questioned. These international conventions on human rights should be applicable to refugees, as they apply to “all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction,” (ICCPR) or “everyone” (ICCPR, ICESCR). In other words, their applicability is not limited merely to citizens, residents, lawfully staying persons, etc., and they apply not just within a state’s territory but also along its borders and in other areas where states apply coercive force.

While there have been calls to interpret International Refugee Law in light of International Human Rights Instruments (as well as International Humanitarian Law), this argument goes further by asking, what would be the benefits of advocating for refugee rights – not just for refugee women’s rights – through a Human Rights framework, rather than a Refugee Rights framework? Put differently, which legal approach would be more beneficial in protecting refugees’ rights?

The exploration of this question is essentially a theorization of the work of the aforementioned coalition on asylum-seeking women and children in Israel. By embedding a theoretical legal question in the lived experience of women asylum seekers and women’s rights advocates, the expected outcome of this research stretches beyond its theoretical value to a reflection on the advocacy effort and raison d’être of the coalition.

Finally, in light of the recent shifts in the Israeli policies towards asylum seekers, the focus on asylum-seeking women and children and their integration is of high importance. This is ultimately the population that will not be resettled or deported from Israel, and thus their integration – and ability to enjoy the fruits of the feminist struggle in Israel – is an effort worth making for their own sake as well as for the sake of other women.

 

Dr. Tally Kritzman-Amir is a scholar-in-residence at HBI and a senior lecturer of Immigration and International Law at The College of Law and Business in Israel. She is a visiting fellow at The Human Rights Program of Harvard Law School.

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