In the Netherlands, judges can lock up Jewish men who refuse divorce

The Dutch judicial system is the only one in the world outside of Israel that punishes husbands who refuse to give their wives a get — with significant fines.

Courts in the Netherlands can impose a fine four times that amount on so-called recalcitrant husbands and even issue arrest warrants against them, as per a 1982 precedent set by the Supreme Court of the Netherlands.

Last year, the Dutch jurisprudence was cemented in legislation: An amendment to the marriage act empowers judges to order individuals to comply with edicts of religious frameworks relevant to their marital bond.

Fines and warrants issued in the Netherlands apply, in turn, across the EU, giving these husbands records — and chained wives a potentially powerful deterrent. Dutch judges have employed these measures against several dozen recalcitrant husbands since 1982, according to Herman Loonstein, a Dutch-Jewish lawyer who has represented multiple agunot (chained wives) before Dutch courts.

Many of the cases heard in Dutch courts in recent years have involved couples from Muslim communities, in which women seeking a divorce face similar roadblocks. Millions of immigrants from the Middle East have arrived in Holland over the past decade or so.

The Dutch judiciary’s willingness to get involved in this issue is unusual because it contradicts the separation of church and state principle, which is strongly observed in Western Europe.

The Dutch courts do not directly interfere with the religious process, which usually involves a Beit Din, or rabbinical court. But they do label the process of refusing to give a get as “unlawful conduct,” Matthijs de Blois, assistant professor at Utrecht University’s Institute of Legal Theory of the Law Faculty, explained in a 2010 essay for the Utrecht Law Review.

The 1982 Supreme Court ruling here overturned the rulings of two lower courts that had refused to hear a case brought by a chained wife from Utrecht. She had sued her husband in a civil court for refusing to grant her a get.

The District Court of Utrecht, near Amsterdam, declined her lawsuit in 1979, stating that “only the civil aspects of a marriage should be considered.” The woman lost an appeal in 1981.
The high court’s decision bypassed the religious dimension altogether, reasoning that the husband “could be in violation of a rule of unwritten law pertaining to proper social conduct vis-à-vis his divorced wife,” de Blois wrote.

In Israel, which has no separation between religion and state, family courts are also religious ones and run by the Chief Rabbinate. The judges at those Batei Din belong to the country’s judicial branch and are empowered to fine and imprison recalcitrant husbands, as well as confiscate their passports.


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