News Analysis: U.S. Warning to Israel-bound Echoes Beyond Diplomatic Arena

The U.S. State Department’s unprecedented decision to issue a formal warning to travelers about rabbinic authority in Israel is reverberating far beyond the diplomatic realm. The warning says the Israeli government may not permit American citizens involved in a contentious divorce to leave the Jewish state until they grant their spouse a religious divorce.

The U.S. government issued the alert in a consular information sheet, in which the State Department details for American travelers a range of local concerns in foreign countries.

The alert raises questions — as yet unanswered — about the extent of Israeli jurisdiction over American citizens.

The development is rooted in the stories of two American Orthodox Jewish men who have withheld a religious divorce, called a get, from their wives and then gone to visit Israel.

Jews who live according to halachah, or Jewish law, require a get to annul their marriage. Only a man can give a get.

The two women involved in these cases have turned to the Israeli rabbinical establishment to pressure their husbands into giving them the divorces that they need to move on with their lives.

Israeli rabbinical courts, which have police powers, can prohibit men from leaving the country when they are withholding the Jewish divorces that their wives require or the money that they have been ordered to pay in child support and alimony.

Seymour “Shimon” Klagsbrun and Uziel Frankel are not Israeli citizens, but the Israeli government has confiscated their passports to prevent them from leaving the country.

Further complicating matters is an unconfirmed report that Klagsbrun somehow managed to leave the country this week despite Israeli attempts to detain him. Elu Klagsbrun, Shimon’s son, said his father’s attorney in Israel had told him of this development.

Their stories also reflect a growing social and religious reality in the Orthodox community: Orthodox rabbis are able to wield little authority over intransigent individuals who refuse to grant a get, or over the renegade rabbis who aid them.

In some instances, men have refused to issue the required get in order to extract concessions or to punish their wives. The women, who are chained to dead marriages, are known as agunot.

Yet a small but apparently growing number of men have sought a way around not being able to remarry by claiming that they have rabbinic permission to date — and in some cases remarry — without divorcing their first wives.

Shimon Klagsbrun of Spring Valley, N.Y., has apparently done just that. In May, a dozen years after separating from his first wife, he married Judith Oshry.

After a marriage of 28 years, Shulamith Klagsbrun left her husband, when, in front of their children at the Shabbat dinner table, he threatened to kill her, according to their eldest son, Elu.

A number of Orthodox rabbinic authorities have said the rabbinic permission to remarry, called a heter, is a forgery.

But at least one, Rabbi Menashe Klein of the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote in a letter in July to another Orthodox rabbi that the heter is valid because Shulamith Klagsbrun went to secular court seeking a divorce, and so deserves punishment.

It is not clear who officiated at Klagsbrun’s second marriage, which Elu and Shulamith Klagsbrun strongly believe was conducted in Israel.

The rabbis of Spring Valley, where he and his new wife live, prohibited him from worshiping at any area synagogue, which is the strongest sanction they can levy.

Klagsbrun traveled to Israel in the autumn of 1996, hoping to find a more welcoming atmosphere, his son said.

Despite the fact that her husband is possibly a bigamist according to both Jewish and secular law, rabbinic authorities cannot find a way within Jewish law to release Shulamith Klagsbrun from her shackles.

“A woman biblically cannot have two husbands but a man biblically can have two wives,” according to Rabbi J. David Bleich, director of The Institute for Post Graduate Study of Family Law and Jurisprudence at Yeshiva University.

Although rabbinic authorities outlawed polygamy centuries ago, they instituted certain loopholes for men under certain conditions.

Shulamith Klagsbrun turned to the Israelis out of desperation, she said.

Once Israel’s rabbinical courts were informed of his case, they narrowly stopped him from leaving the country. Klagsbrun and his new wife were on the Tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport, ready to board a SwissAir flight to Zurich, when the police reached him, according to Shulamith and Elu Klagsbrun.

He was held in a Jerusalem prison overnight and his passport was confiscated the next day.

Shimon Klagsbrun quickly appealed to the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem for help, according to several sources familiar with the case.

Senior U.S. officials have been pressing Klagsbrun’s case both in Israel’s high rabbinical court and in its secular Supreme Court, says Ronald Greenwald, a New York Orthodox rabbi and businessman.

Greenwald, who has a long history of involvement in matters of international diplomacy, including the deal that freed Natan Sharansky from the former Soviet Union, said he flew to Israel to intercede with American officials there on Shulamith Klagsbrun’s behalf.

U.S. officials are apparently challenging Israeli jurisdiction over the cases.

They are framing the issue as a matter of “protecting Americans visiting Israel,” Greenwald said. “I thought maybe if the representatives of our good government knew the facts they wouldn’t go so wild.”

Sources in both the State Department and at the Israeli Embassy in Washington confirmed that there had been contacts between the governments on this issue, but neither would reveal the level or content of the discussions.

“This is an American issue,” said embassy spokesman Gadi Baltiansky. “American Jews are always welcome in Israel both to visit and to live. There is a public system of laws there and it is always helpful to know the laws of the country.”

For their part, U.S. officials believe they are doing the right thing.

“We simply feel an obligation to remind the American traveling public as well as American citizens living in Israel, particularly those who are of the Jewish faith, that this situation exists and that they may fall under the jurisdiction or the claim of jurisdiction of these courts,” State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters.

Now that American authorities have stepped in and are pressing the Israeli government to allow Klagsbrun and Frankel to leave the country, Shulamith Klagsbrun says she fears that she will never get her divorce.

“We were hoping with pressure there I would get it,” she said in a telephone interview.

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