He said the figures cited for agunot - known as "chained women" - were exaggerated and that the solution was fewer divorces. "We know they don't run into hundreds," he said. "It's not even 100. If we want to solve the problem of agunot, have less divorces. We are dealing with a marginal problem, not the core of the problem."
His remarks, at an International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW) forum on "Halachic solutions to the problems of agunot" and reported in today's Jewish Chronicle, infuriated campaigners and victims.
Rosalind Preston, who chaired the 1994 "Women in the Community" review commissioned by Lord Jakobovits's successor, Dr Jonathan Sacks, said his speech "underlines why we have this problem". She took issue with his calculation of the numbers of women affected, saying: "If there are so few, how come there are so many in this room?"
The 125-strong audience included a woman from Leeds who has been "chained" for 46 years and a Londoner who had waited 20 years for her "get", or religious bill of divorce. Sandra Blackman, 59, recently "freed" after seven years, said: "There was an atmosphere of anger among the whole audience."
According to campaigners, husbands refuse to grant their wives a "get", even when a civil divorce has gone through, as a bargaining counter or simply out of vindictiveness.
Lord Jakobovits said yesterday that he had not intended to "belittle the tragedy" suffered by "chained women", but wanted the ICJW to pay more attention to the high divorce rate. "
June Jacobs, forum chairwoman and world ICJW president, said she was saddened by his remarks.