Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, the former director general of rabbinic courts in Israel – a position he held for more than two decades – is running for Knesset in next week’s Israeli election. He is number four on the Bayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party, which according to polls should win between 12 and 15 seats. The Jewish Press interviewed him in Jerusalem.
The Jewish Press: Tell us a little about your life – family background, education, etc.
Rabbi Ben Dahan: I was born in Morocco in 1954 and immigrated to Israel with my parents when I was two years old. I grew up in Beer Sheva. I am the oldest of five boys, and since my mother worked outside the home, each of us sons had to help with the housework. This was much appreciated by my wife, Tova Taybowitz, a daughter of Holocaust survivors whom I met in the Bnei Akiva youth movement.
I received my BA in business administration from Touro College and my Masters in public affairs from Hebrew University. My semicha was conferred on me by Rabbi Shalom Mashash, zt”l, chief rabbi of Jerusalem and from Rabbis Avraham Shapira, zt”l, and Mordechai Eliyahu, zt”l, chief rabbis of Israel.
I served in the Israel Defense Forces in the artillery corps, rising to the rank of major.
My wife and I were among the founders of the yishuv Chispin in the Golan Heights. At that time we were only eleven families living on the Syrian border. Today Chispin is a thriving village.
We have nine children, six girls and three boys.
How did you launch your career as a public sector rabbi?
When Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu was appointed chief rabbi of Israel in 1983, he asked me to manage his office. I moved to Beit El in the Shomron with my family and worked for the chief rabbi. In 1989 I was appointed director general of the rabbinic courts, the batei din, a position directly under the chief rabbi himself. This put me in charge of all batei din in the country. I held this position for twenty-one years.
When I started out in that position, the rabbinic courts were a small part of the Religious Ministry. I turned it into an independent office and eventually succeeded in having it become its own unit in the Ministry of Justice. This gave me the opportunity to make many changes and implement many improvements in how the rabbinic courts were run.
On the simplest level, when I started there were very few women working in the rabbinic courts. When positions opened, if there was a qualified woman for the job I was inclined to hire her. When I left, more than forty percent of people working in the religious courts all over the country were women.
You’re known as someone who has focused on the problem of agunot.
I want to clarify the terms regarding women who are agunot and women who are refused a get.
In America and elsewhere outside Israel, the term agunah is used to refer to any woman who cannot get a get from her husband, and thus remains chained to a dead marriage.
In Israel, agunah refers to a woman whose husband is missing. He may be dead or he may have just run away and disappeared and no one knows where he is. We use the term mesoravot get for the women whose husbands refuse to give their wives a get even though they are no longer living together.
This difference in terminology has resulted in a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresenting of facts, especially when statements attributed to me are translated.
Concerning my work with agunot, when I entered office there were approximately five hundred women in Israel whose husbands were missing. I felt we needed to hire private investigators whose sole expertise was in finding missing people. Nothing like this had ever been done before, and it was a hard job for me to get the necessary funds allocated for this. But I made the argument that as a Jewish country we had to do whatever it takes to free these women.
We succeeded in finding many of these men and getting gittin for their wives. In my twenty-one years as head of the rabbinic courts, more than one thousand women in this category were freed through our finding their runaway husbands and delivering the get to them.
I had to create a special unit to deal with these missing men because there was a big difference if they were found in Israel or in other countries. In Israel it was easy to bring the men to bet bin, but in other parts of the world I had to send special rabbis to seek them out and then convince them to give a get.
What did you do to help women whose husbands refuse to give a get, or as you call it, mesoravot get?
I revolutionized the system in Israel. In the past if the bet din ordered the husband to give a get, there was no way to enforce it. I drafted a law that gave the rabbinic court the power to sanction recalcitrant husbands until they obey their orders to grant a get. I worked very hard to get this bill passed in the Knesset. I lobbied all the MPs and eventually even convinced the head of the leftist Meretz party to vote for it. When it became law it made a very big difference to the women chained to a dead marriage.
What are some of the sanctions?
They range from large monetary payments to the wife until a get is granted to revocation of the husband’s drivers license and professional license to seizing a passport to prevent travel out of the country to putting a hold on their bank accounts.
In one celebrated case, a doctor in one of our hospitals refused to give his wife a get. Our office had his medical license suspended and the hospital suspended him. A get was given very quickly.
The sanctions can go as far as jailing the recalcitrant husband. And once in jail, privileges such as visits and canteen are removed as time passes, and finally the man can find himself in solitary confinement. My feeling is that his refusal to give a get takes away the wife’s freedom so it is only fitting that we take away his freedom as well.
I created a special bet din to deal with the most difficult mesoravot get cases, and this special bet din is the one that has gotten tremendous results. I checked each case and turned the really hard ones over to this special court. In fact, over the years if an Israeli citizen living abroad came to Israel for a yahrzeit or a family simcha or some other event, and he was on the list of those who were refusing to give their wives a get, we immediately notified the police and he was kept in custody until a get was granted. Unfortunately when I left my position this special bet din was discontinued.
I was also instrumental in the hiring of women toanot – rabbinic pleaders. In the past only men were rabbinic pleaders. I fought to change the law so that women could also be toanot. Rachel Levmore was the first one and I hired her to work for us.
Today women make up more than fifty percent of rabbinic pleaders and I have found that in many cases the women toanot are more dedicated than the men.
After our successes in Israel we were approached by rabbinic courts in other countries for help. I answered every call and made suggestions wherever applicable. Unfortunately, outside of Israel, religious courts do not have the same powers of enforceability we have in Israel.
What do you hope to accomplish as a Knesset member?
I have been lobbying to make get refusal an extraditable offense for Israeli men who ran away to the U.S. I met with Homeland Security in Washington regarding Israeli men who are wanted in Israel for not granting their wives a divorce and who are in America illegally. I was not successful. But from the Knesset I hope to push through a law on behalf of these women whose husbands ran away – and to have Israel officially request the extradition of any Israeli man living outside Israel who has been ordered by a bet din to give a get and has not done so.
I would also like to expand our registry of gittin given in Israel to include gittin given all over the world. If this could be accomplished then even if a woman loses her document stating she was divorced, we would have the pertinent information listed in our registry.
I hope also to work on an array of family issues. To give just one example, at the present time there are different units for women’s affairs and for children’s affairs. I would like to consolidate this into one unit. I think much more could be accomplished for the benefit of children if there were one unit with accountability.
In view of all you’ve said, why have some women’s groups complained that you are against women’s rights?
I think a lot has to do with confusion over terminology, as I explained earlier, such as when I spoke about statistics for agunot. And some things I have said were simply quoted out of context.
If one looks at my record on women’s issues, it shows how hard I’ve worked on behalf of women. During my many years as director general of the batei din I worked with all the women’s groups. And women called me from all over the world at all hours, day and night. I tried to help each one of them and never turned anyone away.
About the Author: Naomi Klass Mauer is associate publisher of The Jewish Press.
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