Divorced? Jewish Tourists Can Face Perilous Times in Israel


You have just gone through a bitter divorce and you want to take your mind off it, maybe with a little foreign travel. But if you are Jewish, you might want to rethink that trip to Israel.

According to a warning issued by the State Department, Israel’s religious courts are asserting jurisdiction in divorce, child custody, child support and other family matters involving Jews who are in the country temporarily, even for a week or two.

The department says some Americans have been prevented from leaving Israel for substantial periods of time until their cases are heard. In extreme cases, the courts are authorized to impose jail terms.

“Under Israel’s judicial system, the rabbinical courts exercise jurisdiction over all Jewish citizens and residents of Israel in cases of marriage and divorce and related issues, such as child support and custody,” the department said. “In some cases, Jewish Americans who entered Israel as tourists have become defendants in divorce cases filed against them in rabbinical court by their American spouses.”


The department said the religious courts can entertain divorce cases when a civil divorce already has been granted if one party is dissatisfied with the terms set by the civil court.

Israeli law gives religious authorities--Christian and Muslim as well as Jewish--jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, child custody and other “family” matters for all people living in Israel, whether they are citizens or not.

For most of Israel’s modern history, religious authorities have not tried to impose their will on tourists. Christian and Muslim groups still have not attempted to claim jurisdiction over visitors.

“Jewish American visitors should be aware that they may be subject to involuntary and prolonged stays in Israel if a case is filed against them in a rabbinical court,” the State Department said. “This may occur even when the marriage took place in the U.S. and/or the spouse seeking relief is not present in Israel.”


The department added: “Americans have been detained in Israel for prolonged periods while the Israeli courts consider whether such individuals have sufficient ties to Israel to establish rabbinical court jurisdiction. The rabbinical courts have also detained in the country a Jewish American tourist who has been sued for [child] support by his spouse in the United States.”

Arthur Berger, a spokesman for the American Jewish Committee, said such cases are rare. But several Americans have been caught up in rabbinical court cases, he said, most of them involving women seeking Jewish religious divorces from their husbands.

Even when marriages have been dissolved by a civil divorce decree, Jewish women are not allowed to remarry in an Orthodox religious ceremony unless they obtain from their ex-husbands a religious decree called a get. The law does not work the other way; husbands do not need gets from their ex-wives.

Israeli religious courts sometimes order husbands to issue gets when they determine the ex-wife should be free to remarry. But civil divorce actions in the United States and other countries often do not address the issue of religious divorce, allowing a vindictive former husband to refuse to grant a get.

“If an Israeli citizen refused to give his wife a divorce document, the [religious] courts have the right to have the government intervene and imprison the person,” said Rabbi Lawrence Grossman, director of publications at the American Jewish Committee.

He said it is an “interesting question” why the rabbinical courts have recently decided to claim jurisdiction over Jewish tourists. Perhaps, he said, lawyers for aggrieved wives have just learned that they have access to the religious courts in Israel. Or, he said, there may be more fundamental changes in the customs of marriage and divorce in the Jewish communities outside of Israel.

“Apparently two men [involved in recent Israeli court cases] went ahead and married other women without giving their wives a Jewish divorce,” Grossman said. “This is something these men would not have done 10 or 15 years ago.”