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February 23, 2015 3:09 pm

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (REVIEW)

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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'Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem' is about an unhappy wife desperate to escape her marriage but her Moroccan-Israeli husband refuses to grant her a Get. Photo: IMDb.

I have just seen a film called Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, an Israeli-French production. It is a most offensive film depicting a cartoon of Judaism. An unhappy wife, mother of four children, is desperate to escape a loveless marriage in which her Moroccan-Israeli husband adamantly refuses either to understand her unhappiness or to grant her a Get. He is simply and stubbornly insensitive to her human needs and cannot understand what she is going through. Her agony extends over a five-year period in which she has to face caricatures of hardline rabbis, hypocritical Moroccan neighbors and relatives, two-faced friends and incompetent legal experts. It is a grotesque cast of Fellini-like unsympathetic freaks.

Now I know better than most other people the limitations of Jewish divorce law, the male chauvinism of many rabbis, the incompetence of courts, and the abuses of the judiciary, wherever they are. I have consistently campaigned over the years for changes in attitude and the application of Jewish law within the bounds of the system. But to see such a one-sided distortion, containing factual errors, ignoring all the good that is done and offering the world a picture of traditional Judaism that is primitive and barbaric, simply made my heart sink and my hackles rise.

I have often written about the problems of the Agunah, a woman constrained under the law because a husband or brother-in-law refuses to release her to remarry through motives of blackmail or spite. Sometimes husbands have disappeared, either intentionally trying to escape their obligations or through accidents or catastrophes. Thankfully, there are not as many cases as people think, but even if we were dealing with only one and the rabbis failed to solve it using Jewish law I would still be offended and my sense of religious justice insulted.

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Whatever my criticisms, most rabbis in Israel and abroad do a fair, sensitive, and reasonable job ensuring that women get their bills of divorce without blackmail or delay. Most Dayanim (judges) who sit on Jewish courts are humane, caring men. This goes for Ashkenazim and Sephardim (in this film the directors, in their ignorance, got terribly mixed up between the two). But there are sadly exceptions and if there is just one court, one rabbi, one judge who acts like a boor in the face of a woman in distress, or if there is one sector of the Jewish world that still clings to male domination and expects female submission, I desperately want it to be challenged and pressure to be brought to stop this betrayal of Jewish moral values.

Nevertheless, upset as I am by this distorted picture of my religion and this film that I wouldn’t give tuppence for, in a way I am glad it is on general release. This is precisely why I value the freedom of the free world. Because we can go public, there can be redress. Because we can hold to ridicule the hypocrisies of those religious authorities who fail, we have a chance of getting them to see another point of view. If we lose that right, we have lost freedom.

Having been thus offended, if what happens all around us seems to work and if I want to get people to recognize how offended I am, I should now go out and kill someone and firebomb a film studio to make my point, in the hope that people will say, “There, there poor Jeremy, we must not offend you or your religion. So we will say this is not a film about Judaism, but rather about black-bearded men who behave badly. And we will stop showing the film and withdraw it from public distribution in order to protect everyone concerned from your violent reaction.” You can see where I am going with this.

Why is it that the free world seems impervious to insulting Judaism or Christianity, but bridles at anything that might insult Muslims? Meanwhile, many Imams in Islamic societies and communities, the source of so much antisemitism are not only refusing to cleanse their own stables but continue to heap abuse on Jews.

Whatever our obligations to immigrants of other religions, and they are and must be broad and supportive, one thing we must not compromise is our freedom to criticize and to hold to ridicule. This of course is very different to abuse and inciting hatred. That is an integral part of our civilization and culture that men like Voltaire, Franklin, and Zola fought for. There is a difference between insulting people and insulting gross acts of violence and terror and their sources. But what is at the root of this issue is the demand of one religion that it be treated as exceptional.

This is why we must fight any attempt to bring back blasphemy laws, because they will be used to prevent exposing the crimes of religious leaders who betray our moral values, just as libel laws are used to protect corrupt businessmen and politicians. Being publicly ridiculed by talk show hosts and comedians is the only safeguard we have against financial corruption and religious fanaticism imposing itself upon us all.

Liberalism, too, is a religion that must be held to ridicule. The pathetic cowardice of those who argue that using euphemisms will help solve a problem is precisely the kind of appeasement that has brought Europe to its present state of confusion. If you tolerate preachers continually preaching hatred against a group in society because you do not wish to label them, you must expect something to happen. And if you do nothing you become a partner in the crime. The more one gives in to bullies, the more one will be bullied. I hear pundits say that America, unlike Europe, in not publishing offensive cartoons has found a balance between freedom of speech and offensive speech. That’s hogwash. It is Liberal hypocrisy and, frankly, defeatism.

I believe our society requires that we hold up to ridicule all religions and all ideologies when their members betray their ideals. Because that is often the only way to get a reaction, other than retreating behind closed doors. I do not object if you call a Chasid who steals a “Jewish thief” because in his dress he is clearly identifying himself as Jewish by religion, yet he is stealing. A rabbi who abuses his position is a “rabbinical abuser”. That describes him to a tee. And if someone uses Islam or the Koran as a reason to kill, he is a Muslim killer. Morality hates hypocrisy, no matter where it comes from. If there are those who fear prejudice and hatred, let them strive to remove the beams from their eyes too.

I want peace and tolerance and freedom. But if we refuse to be honest with ourselves, there is not a chance. I knew in advance I would hate this film. But I went because I thought it would do my soul good and reinforce my sense of what justice should look like.

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  • Neil

    No Mr Rosen, we don’t rely on the humanity of good judges to deliver justice, we rely on good laws. When the law is unjust and outdated then it needs to be changed, not mitigated by compassionate dispensation, but changed!
    How grateful I am that someone like you has no authority over me!

  • Graciela

    Mr Rosen, stop making unfounded personal accusations against me as they only show your lack of intellectual honesty.

    I am not “generalizing” as you say, and I am not “biased” as you say. I am just denouncing publicly the iniquity of these anachronic laws.

    You should have realized it is these “dinei ishus” -these personal status laws against women and children that are generally applied by all the rabbis all over the world- that are the CRUX OF THE MATTER and not whether most rabbis are nice and helpful while the “rotten appels” are few and far between, as you say.

    Also your argument that civil laws aren’t perfect either is baseless. Two wrongs don’t make one right. Besides, civil laws can at least be reviewed. But in Judaism the rabbis wholly REFUSE to review “dinei ishus”. And since rabbis are Judge and Jury we, as women, are captive subjects that can do NOTHING about it.

    This is the true point made by the film you reviewed, and not that most rabbis are nice people and the bad ones are just a few, as you say.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      And I am saying there is a long history in Judaism of retaining ancient laws as conceptual while finding ways of mitigating any negative effects. Some rabbis try other do not. This has always been the case. No different to lawyers and Judges the world over. Simple blanket abuse of the sort you express gets nowhere.
      Had you taken the trouble to read my piece you would have seen that I condemn intransigence, inhumanity and male chauvinism.

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    I really like the saying, “Say it as it is.” This article reiterates what must be inculcated into the minds of a world so often unwilling to look at the offence and say to the offender, “What did you just say? How dare you! Can’t you tell a lie from the truth and the truth from a lie?” Here is the political instance: Jews are just ‘random’ people appearing at ‘random’ places at ‘random’ times. The current American president has a fascinating capacity to demonstrate such double entendre and an amazing facility to model such equivocation for not only the American public but for the entire world! In his quest to say it is he sees it, he has hypostatised Western civilisation and compromised the integrity of the raw truth facing freedom of speech, religion, and human dignity.

  • glenda urmacher

    I saw The Gett, and thought it well done.
    It was of two children, of the parents involved and they, not us, lived through their mother’s trials, and tribulations with trying to secure a divorce from what seemed like a dish-rag of a father.
    The woman should have left the country, and gotten her divorce elsewhere.
    Or just have found a man to share her life with, and lived with him.
    That would have been poetic justice.
    No longer do we need men standing sway over us .
    The mother shed her guts before men who were deaf, dumb and blind.
    A total waste of her time!

  • Elisheva

    “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” – Elie Weisel
    “The seal of G-d is Truth.” – Rabbi Hanina

    Israel and the Jews are far from perfect, but who is?

  • Graciela INDIGNADA

    Jewish laws of gett, yebum & halitsa, and mamzerut are a very old and shameful disgrace.
    Even the decisions of Rabeinu Gershom Meor Hagola a thousand years ago are artfully circumvented by today’s rabbis.
    These laws should have disappeared centuries ago.
    They very specifically target and deny women and children their human rights as established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
    There are innumerable innocent Jewish women and children in the world today who continuously suffer from this degrading and abject laws.
    Rabbis all over the world, to their eternal condamnation and shame, make sure these laws are kept unchanged forever.
    May the suffering they cause by upholding these laws revert on them and their children.
    And shame on you, Mr. Rosen, for defending them!

    • Jeremy Rosen

      I dont know where you get the idea from that I am defending those who refuse to give a get or rabbis to fail in their duty. If you had actually read what I wrote you would see that I say that even if there is one such person, it merits making a fuss about and pressurizing the religious authorities to act with sensitivity and expedition.

      My main and only point was that to give the impression that all rabbis, all Moroccan men are insensitive male chauvinists is wrong and dishonest.

      People seeing the film will think this is the norm instead of a laughable exception.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Shame on you Graciella for a very one sided biased point of view.
      All laws have their origins in earlier eras and were designed to meet specific and usually socially caring needs. And every law is capable of being misinterpreted or abused by incompetent or biased judges.
      I could keep you busy all night with tales of abuses in the American civil legal system and even lives lost as a result.
      Unless you understand the history and the ideas behind the laws you are betraying your cultural prejudices by presenting only one side.
      I can recount cases of men being abused, held to ransom and their children used as pawns as well as women.
      You are doing precisely what I object to, generalizing.

  • Judith Garson Djemal

    I was very surprised to read your blog. I am glad you have had such a pleasant experience in the Rabbinical Courts in Israel but from my experience working for twenty years with agunot and mesoravot get the film is pretty accurate and actually Viviane Amsalem’s case is no where near as bad as some of the terrible cases we have witnessed.Get recalcitrance follows the same patterns as domestic violence the get being seen as the last form of control by an abusive husband. It cuts through all strata of society and affects twenty percent of divorcing women in Israel.

    At the end of January Mavoi Satum (www.mavoisatum.org), the organization I co-founded in 1995, held a screening of Gett at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. It was followed by a panel discussion. There were more than twenty mesoravot get in the audience and all claimed that their experiences in the rabbinical courts were far worse than that of Viviane Amsalem.

    A Sephardi secular woman spoke of depositing her womb at the entrance to the rabbinical courts and having it returned nine years later when it was already too late for her to have children. Another Ashkenazi Orthodox woman said how she would probably never marry again within the rabbinical courts after her experience and would encourage her children not to marry in that way. One woman had her nose broken by her recalcitrant husband in court – he was still not forced to give her a get.

    One of our clients was married for two days before her husband ran off to the States with all the money they had received in presents and demanded an additional $10,000 before he would give her a get. The rabbinical court insisted that she needed a get. It was only after Mavoi Satum convened a private rabbinical court that annulled the marriage that the rabbinical court suddenly decided they could grant her a get – the rabbinical courts do not like annulments. In another case, one of our women waited seven years for her get. Luckily for her, her husband was rude to the judges during two hearings. He was warned if he was rude again and “insulted the judges’ honour” he would be jailed. He was actually rude again at the same hearing and was sent to jail. Within twenty four hours he granted his wife a get. Now could that not have happened seven years earlier?

    Last Thursday a documentary was aired on Israeli television on mesoravot get. Mavoi Satum took a central part in the programme. The featured woman we are now representing has been separated from her husband for more than eight years ; he is living with another woman and has two children with her. His “wife ” is still waiting for her get and though not religious will not go out with anyone else. This is the crux of the problem , a man can have as many relationships as he wants with unmarried women but according to Jewish law she can not have a relationship with any man other than her husband and any children born from any extra-marital relationship would be mamzerim.

    There are some brave and courageous rabbis in the rabbinical courts. Last year we attained a get for a woman whose husband has been in coma for the past seven years. Except that since the get was granted the ultra-Orthodox have been trying any which way to revoke it. Rabbi Lavie of the Safed Rabbinical Court has been vilified and there is a concerted effort to prevent his appointment to the Rabbinical High Court. In the meantime an uninvolved third party has appealed the get in the Rabbinical High Court and the appeal has been accepted. We are now appealing to the Supreme Court.

    In the last few years there has been progress in the rabbinical courts but it is happening at a very slow rate for the forty five thousand women ( a number provided by the rabbinate in 2014) who are stuck in the system. The blame lies with the Israeli government for after all the Rabbinical courts are under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry.

    In my experience the film was very true to the reality in most of the rabbinical courts in Israel today. It might seem distorted but unfortunately the courtsare often as farcical as presented. Ronit Elkabetz, the co-director and actress, knows exactly what she is talking about. She unfortunately accompanied a friend of hers through the whole humiliating and soul-destroying process.

    Please feel free to get in touch next time you are in Israel and I will be happy to arrange meetings with you with as many mesoravot get as you would like to meet and to attend a few hearings which might give you a different perspective on the issue.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      As you yourself say there are some wonderful rabbis trying very hard to solve these cases. And thats my point. Not that there is no problem but to paint it as the norm as the film does without another side, insults those good rabbis trying their best to deal with these scandalous cases you refer to.

      • Graciela

        Like I said earlier, these Jewish laws of mamzerut, yebum & halitsa, and gett -and I am leaving out a few, like the one prohibiting a woman to be a legal witness- degrade, humiliate, stigmatise, and arbitrarily punish innocent children and women.

        You completely fail to acknowledge the very toxic nature of these laws.

        So how can you ask us to acknowledge the “good” rabbis who uphold and enforce on us such abject laws?

        Rabbis find these laws wonderful, and if they don’t, they have a very peculiar way of showing it.

        Still, they will do all sorts of acrobacies to preserve these laws intact and whole, because they are, after all, their core business.

        But we cannot thank them because in order to uphold these laws they exact from us a monstruous price that destroys our lives, and that is criminal behaviour.

        In Jewish law rabbis are judge and jury, so that not only the law but that, too, is at the root of the problem.

  • steven L

    Sometimes exaggeration is required to make a point!
    For a “few” women isn’t this like torture?

  • David

    After seeing the movie, I was enraged. I was enraged at the Bes Din and its male chauvism and grossly inhumane and insensitive treatment of the Agunah.

    Over the years, I have met many women here in the US with the most disgusting experiences at Batei Dinim. Their descriptions certainly squared with what I saw on screen. However, I personally spent five disastrous years in front of an Ashkenazi Chassidic Bes Din here in New York, merely to get justice from one of their peers who deliberately destroyed my life and family.

    Without exaggerating, those rabbis seemed to have no conception of Torah and in my opinion had no business being members of a Bes Din let alone calling themselves religious Jews. My ten year learning-disabled son has more common sense.

    Only after thousands of phone calls, letters, personal visits etc. was I able to obtain a Psak, which was not worth the toilet paper it was written on. Nor did they have any interest in enforcing the Psak’s terms against their fellow community member, who happened to be a shochet and sopher.

    Perhaps out of pity, after many years of my futile efforts, the Secretary of the Bes Din finally informed me that the non-contested matter took so long because they had been “threatened” if they helped me. A Bes Din that honestly believes that they were threatened has recourse, but it is not to waste a litigant’s time for many years. If they had any honesty, they would have either acted with integrity and alacrity or resigned.

    I know a Moroccan man, thrice divorced, who is very similar to the husband in the movie. I have strongly urged him to see himself in the mirror of the film, in the hope that he can be helped to avoid three more disasters. Understandably, he adamently refuses, as he is the perfect person, albeit a bit controlling.

    Yes, the movie was realistic, except for those who are blind.

    Something should be done to avoid such travesties. That movie too closely resembled how Moslem women are treated in their religious tribunals. Do our rabbis want, that our Batei Dinim should be compared to Moslem courts? Interestingly, I saw on the Internet that a Moslem newspaper gave prominent coverage to the Epstein trial that is a terrible Chilul HaShem, as many of Epstein’s clients were desperate Agunot.

    For that reason alone, the system should be changed if at all possible, to at least procedural safeguards that are customarily considered required for a “Fair Trial”.

    Do you think I would trust another Bes Din to waste my life?

    • I am amazed that the response of readers/viewers has been to attack the Rabbincal Court system when the problem with the Gett process depicted in this movie, (which I have not seen), appears to be much more about the control issues of the husband.

      • Neil

        The point was that the system ALLOWS husbands the power to indulge their control issues at the expense of the women. Men should not have such power, the courts should be able to compel them to divorce when the wife is suffering so much.

  • I have a screenplay that gives a different point of view about when a woman is not given a Gett.

    It is a great story with interesting characters and a surprising plot. It is not centered around Rabbis and struggles. It is centered around life.

    If any readers have ideas of how I should proceed and whom I should approach so that I can get the script produced into a movie – please give me suggestions.

    Thanks

  • Georgette Gelbard

    Wow! Utterly raw honesty, exposed without the slightest quiver of what will be hurled at him by liberals that he calls out in this piece. What a brilliant, brilliant article. Thank you Jeremy.

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