WIN EXCLUSIVE: How ‘no exit’ orders affect divorced fathers in Israel

Divorced fathers in Israel tell WIN they are “living in the cracks of a broken system,” as they are banned from traveling outside the Jewish State unless they pay astronomical sums of future child support in advance.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

The story of an Australian-Israeli man, Noam Huppert, receiving a no exit order that forbids him from leaving the Jewish State until the year 9999, recently made headlines around the world.

A court ruling several years ago determined that Huppert cannot travel outside of Israel unless he fulfills his ex-wife’s demand that he pay all future child support payments for their two children upfront, in one lump sum.

The decision was made during a nasty divorce battle that started with Huppert’s wife taking their children from Australia, where the family was living, to the Jewish State without his permission.

“In 2011, my wife abducted the kids from Sydney to Israel, and from this moment the crisis of my life began,” Huppert told World Israel News.

But Huppert is not the only divorced father to speak out about the suffering caused by the distinctly Israeli policy, which puts maximally restrictive limits on a person’s freedom of movement.

What is a no exit order?

A no exit order prevents an individual from traveling outside of Israel, whether by land, air, or sea. It was originally created to stop people who had racked up debts in Israel from fleeing the country without paying back what they owed.

Historically, banks and other financial institutions requested no exit orders for individual debtors. The Israeli military also regularly files no exit orders against deserters and draft dodgers, and legally, any person who has a large debt in Israel can be slapped with the ban.

But in recent years, some shrewd Israeli women have discovered that an exit ban can serve as a battering ram during an ugly divorce or estrangement.

“In many cases, [no exit orders] are issued in disputes that relate to family matters, and there it can often be misused, and the courts will issue them rather easily, readily,” Edwin Freedman, a prominent international and family law attorney, told World Israel News.

Arguing that her estranged or former husband is a flight risk who could potentially abscond from Israel and cease paying child support for his children, the woman can file a request that he be banned from traveling abroad, unless he provides the payments upfront, in a large lump sum.

Even if a man has no criminal record, is in good financial standing, and has previously made regular child support payments, his ties to the world outside of Israel, such as being a resident of another country or possessing dual nationality, are generally enough grounds for the exit ban to be implemented.

The ban can serve as a powerful bargaining chip for the petitioner. The recipient of the order is placed under intense pressure to resolve the situation, and may end up accepting agreements or terms to which they otherwise would not have, so that the ban is lifted.

The request for an exit ban is approved without a hearing in which the man can argue his side of the case, and the recipient of the ban is only notified of the decision afterwards.

“The idea is that these are ex parte proceedings, so the other party is not even served notice,” said Freedman. “The procedure is, ‘we issue the order first and ask questions later.’”

Men are often asked to pay several years of child support in advance for the ban to be lifted, which could easily total into the tens or hundreds of thousands of shekels.

Some men have even been told that they need to fork over payments stretching through the child’s 18th birthday – meaning that if an order is filed when a child is a toddler, the amount needed to lift the no exit order could be millions of shekels.

“I don’t know of other jurisdictions that take these kinds of actions,” Freedman said, acknowledging that Israel’s policy of holding an individual responsible for future debt is unusual.

No win situation

Freedman noted that while an exit ban is ostensibly aimed at pressuring men to financially support their children, the reality is that the orders can actually make it more difficult for that to happen.

“By preventing the person from traveling, you’re preventing them from earning a living and paying support,” he said.

“I think there are better ways to deal with it,” he added, noting that the U.S. and Israel have a memorandum of understanding which makes child support judgements legally enforceable across the two countries.

Divorced father Antony Wegener, who holds German, South African, and Israeli citizenship, spoke to WIN about how no exit orders can create a perfect storm in which a man’s career is derailed, in turn triggering a spiral into financial ruin.

Before his divorce, Wegener said, “I was working as a product manager in high tech, making good money.” But because of an exit ban, he was no longer able to find work in his field.

In pre-pandemic times, the role required spending a week abroad each month. The travel restriction made working in his chosen career impossible for Wegener, and severely limited his options for well-paying jobs, which made fulfilling his child support payments harder.

Because Wegener fell behind on his payments, his debts grew astronomically as they were compounded with interest and penalties, and any money which he deposited in his bank account was automatically seized by the state.

Israel does not garnish wages with the idea that the debtor is entitled to a modest amount of money on which to live. Rather, if a debtor has any funds at all in a bank account, the state will seize it in its entirety and apply it towards the debt.

“This mechanism happens in other countries too, but you have due process, you have to sign documents that you know it’s going to happen,” Wegener said. “In Israel, it’s the same as getting mugged. They’re just waiting to ambush as soon as money comes into the account.”

Wegener said that he is living “in between the cracks of a very broken system. I’m not living like a normal human being with a functional bank account.”

Unable to use a credit card, sign a lease for an apartment, or work without the entirety of his wages being seized by the government each time a paycheck was deposited into his account, he sought help from the German embassy. According to Wegener, he was told that they would not intercede on his behalf and there was nothing that could be done to assist him.

“Divorce is really driving men into the ground. If there’s any situation where he can’t pay [child support], there’s no tolerance. None,” he said. “I can’t leave, I can’t live here, and it could be like that forever.”

Jay Hait, a leading divorce and elder law attorney, told WIN that he’s heard of similar outcomes for other divorced fathers.

He recounted the story of a man who was ordered to pay an “insanely high” amount of monthly child support based on his U.S. salary, who was then slapped with a no exit order after missing one payment.

Because of the ban preventing him from traveling outside of the country, the man “couldn’t go to work, and they fired him from his job in the U.S.”

The man “couldn’t get a new job for an amount [that matched his American salary] in Israel,” yet his child support requirement remained the same. “The debt kept rolling up each month, plus penalties and interest.”

The no exit order also places a huge amount of power squarely in the hands of the petitioner. For example, if an estranged or former wife decided that she forgave the debt or told the court the spouses had worked out a payment plan between them, the man’s exit ban order would be lifted.

“I don’t know a single family court judge that if the two sides came and said they’d reached an agreement, who wouldn’t [cancel] the order,” Hait said.

Israel’s complicated legal system, which grants both rabbinical and civil courts the authority to adjudicate various aspects of divorce, is part of the problem, he added.

“The system sucks, for men on one side and women on the other side,” he said, acknowledging the challenges that some women face in ending their marriages in Rabbinical court, as men have unilateral power to grant a divorce under Jewish law.

“The whole system needs to be revamped.”

Guilty until proven innocent

Israel-born Noam Huppert immigrated to Australia in 2007 with his wife and young son. A daughter was born in Sydney a few years later. But in 2011, after a strained period in their marriage, Huppert’s then-wife abducted their children and brought them to Israel without his permission.

Huppert, who by then was an Australian citizen, launched a legal campaign in order for his children to be returned to Australia, and began frequently flying back and forth between Israel and Australia for proceedings.

Although an Israeli court agreed that Huppert’s former wife had abducted their children, it found that it was in their best interest to remain in Israel. This ruling effectively forced Huppert to abandon his life in Australia and return to Israel so that he could maintain a relationship with his kids.

Once back in Israel full time, Huppert said, he was met with the ugly reality that despite his wife internationally abducting their children, it was assumed that she should be the custodial parent.

“The Israeli court automatically gives the mother all the [custody] rights, and all the hearings are basically just a show, a theater, and decisions are pre-made,” Huppert explained. “The judges are systematically biased towards the mother.”

The court’s approach towards fathers, Huppert said, is markedly different. The authorities’ eagerness to impose draconian restrictions on movement and punitive measures, like the no exit order, stems from an attitude that “we suspect that you’re going to run away from paying your child support, and that’s applied to everyone. Everyone’s a suspect.”

Questioning why the courts operate under the assumption that divorced fathers will end up as deadbeat dads, Huppert said that “99.9% of people want to live in the same country where their kids are.”

Shortly after returning to Israel, Huppert’s ex filed a no exit order, stating that he should not be allowed to travel internationally unless he paid child support for their two children in a single, advance payment. He said he filed an appeal to lift the travel ban, explaining that he had left a settled life in Australia and returned to the Jewish State in order to maintain a relationship with his children.

“I came to Israel to fight for my kids, why would I run away now?” Huppert said, summarizing his argument as to why the travel ban was illogical. In response, the court cited Huppert’s Australian citizenship as sufficient grounds to keep the no exit order in place.

Depression and suicide are not uncommon among divorced fathers in Israel, he said, as men sink deeper into financial difficulties.

As their debts continually swell, exacerbated by large penalty charges and other punitive fees, the state may order sanctions such as preventing the debtor from renewing their driver license, confiscating their vehicle or other assets, and seizing control of their bank account, Huppert said. These measures often make continuing to live a normal life impossible.

But despite the challenges facing him as a divorced father, Huppert said he remains optimistic. He hopes that the international attention around his case will raise awareness of the issues around family law in Israel, and serve as a warning to both Israeli bachelors and diaspora Jewish men, who may not have a realistic understanding of the Jewish State’s legal system.