British advocates for the rights of women whose husbands will not grant them Jewish divorces are disappointed at the defeat of a bill designed to remedy the problem.
The Board of Deputies, which represents most British Jews, vowed to continue to press for a change to the law after the House of Commons rejected the bill last Friday.
“We are deeply disappointed that, after the bill’s rapid passage through the House of Lords, it should fail on a single objection,” said Jo Wagerman, the board’s president.
“We will be exploring all possible avenues to see how we can have the bill brought back into Parliament as a matter of priority,” she said.
Some leading activists on behalf of agunot, as these women are known, took the defeat of the bill in stride.
“We didn’t hold a great deal of store by it anyway,” said Sandra Blackman, who co-chairs the Agunot Campaign, a group that supports agunot.
“The only way the situation can be resolved is by rabbinic authorities,” she said.
“It’s not an enormous disappointment, just a small disappointment,” she said of the bill’s rejection.
The bill’s rejection means it will not have another chance of passage for two years, given that Parliament is about to recess for the summer and the likelihood that a general election will be held next year, said Andrew Dismore, the member of Parliament who took responsibility for the bill in the House of Commons.
Proposed by Lord Lester, a human rights lawyer, the bill would have given British courts the power to withhold the final stage of a civil divorce if a husband refuses to give his wife a get, a Jewish divorce.
The defeat of the bill, aimed at helping agunot, Hebrew for “chained women,” is “absolutely appalling,” said Dismore.
Agunot are prevented from remarrying in an Orthodox ceremony. Children born to an agunah are classified as mamzerim, or illegitimate, and may marry only other mamzerim, according to Jewish law.
No such provision applies to a husband who fathers children without first completing the Orthodox requirements for divorce.
The legislator whose objection killed the proposal said he is opposed to the form of the bill, not the substance.
“I don’t know what the contents of the bill are. It hasn’t been discussed or debated,” said Eric Forth.
The bill was what is known as a private member’s bill, one sponsored by an individual legislator, not the government.
“It’s absolutely proper that it’s difficult to make laws,” Forth said in defense of his action. “I would have thought that the Jews of all people would be suspicious of laws being made in a peremptory manner.”
British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks had urged him not to object to the bill, according to Forth.
Blackman also pointed out that English courts can withhold what is known as the decree absolute, the final stage of an English civil divorce, without the proposed law.
“The judge withheld the decree absolute” until the husband granted his wife a religious divorce, she said.
David Whiteman, the lawyer who argued that case, agreed.
“If the wife is advised properly, she can stop the decree absolute,” Whiteman said. “She can say to a judge, `If I’m not free to remarry, why should he be?'”
The problem, he said, is that not all lawyers know this law.