Civil marriage in Israel: The time has come
With all of the many issues confronting the state of Israel—the Iranian nuclear threat, the challenges of renewing meaningful peace talks with the Palestinians, the increasing social divisions in Israeli society, an unconventional and somewhat precarious coalition government, serious deficits in the educational system, insufficient employment opportunities for Israelis with advanced degrees and an increasingly turbulent and unpredictable neighborhood—one might assume that the Jewish state has more than enough on its collective plate.
For the first time since 1977, there are no ultra-Orthodox parties in the recently-formed governing coalition. The ascendancy of two new parties, in particular Yesh Atid (There is a Future), reflects an increasing restiveness in Israeli society, amply demonstrated during the summer of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis literally took to the streets to protest the growing unaffordability of Israeli life and the unfairness of not requiring all Israelis to share in protecting the country.
But there is an additional critical issue facing Israel today—civil marriage. Israel shares the lack of a civil marriage option with the following countries: Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Libya—as well as Mauritania, Indonesia and Iran. In Israel, only religious authorities, specifically, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical courts, and the Islamic and Christian authorities have the power to officiate at marriages in their respective religious communities.
This arrangement, which dates back to the Ottoman Empire, was continued during the British Mandate (1918-1948). In June, 1947, David Ben Gurion, then chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency (the quasi-government of Israel before it became a state), offered a set of guarantees preserving the “status quo” regarding marriage and other matters of personal status to two religious parties, Agudath Israel and Mizrahi (later the National Religious Party), so that they would join the first elected government of Israel in 1949, thus entrusting to the Orthodox Rabbinate the authority to determine all such matters according to the laws of halacha.
This accommodation became problematic almost immediately, when the Law of Return was passed in 1950 guaranteeing to all Jews the right to make aliyah, therefore inviting the question of “Who is a Jew?”—an issue that remains controversial to this day.
Moreover, by failing to separate religion and state at the inception of Israel’s existence, Israel has continuously had to contend with challenging issues concerning religious identity, citizenship, marriage, divorce (including the status of thousands of agunot (women deserted by husbands who will not divorce them and who are therefore unable to remarry) and burial. The situation was further exacerbated by the aliyah of more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Today, approximately 300,000 Israelis who otherwise fully participate in Israeli society, including serving in the army, are not considered Jewish according to halacha (since the “Jewishness” of their mother or grandmother is in question) and are therefore not eligible to marry in Israel (or be buried in Jewish cemeteries). Other categories of Israelis who cannot be married in modern-day Israel include: a kohen who wishes to marry a divorcee; a kohen and a convert; same-sex couples; Israelis who wish to be married in a non-Orthodox ceremony; and those who wish to marry a “person of no religion” or of “questionable halachic background.”
Increasingly, Israelis are voting with their feet in response to such untenable restrictions and to a religious authority that is perceived as irrelevant at best to their daily lives and to their Jewish identity. Approximately 20 percent of Israelis choose to marry outside of Israel (including the son of Michael Oren, the current ambassador to the U.S.) to avoid marriage under the authority of the Orthodox Rabbinate.
Cyprus is the venue of choice for most, due to its proximity; in fact, there is a booming “marriage business” for Israelis, with great package deals. (Ironically, Israelis who marry in civil marriages outside of Israel can be registered by the Ministry of the Interior as a married couple; however, such couples must go through the Orthodox Rabbinate if they wish to obtain a divorce.) Moreover, a growing number of Israelis are choosing not to marry at all, rather than subject themselves to the requirements of the Rabbinate, which include intrusive questions about personal religious observance that many secular Israelis would prefer to avoid.
Why does this matter to those of us who live outside of Israel? First and foremost, Israel presents itself (and many of us regard it) as the nation-state of the Jewish people. If Israel is to represent the entire Jewish people, then it cannot discount 85 percent of Diaspora Jews who subscribe to a different interpretation of Jewish tradition than the traditional Orthodox version. By rejecting Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist marriages in Israel (and conversions by all three streams outside of Israel), Israel is rejecting the majority of Diaspora Jews who follow a different Jewish path.
Moreover, the “status quo” regarding marriage has a direct effect upon aliyah. As long as Jews who emigrate to Israel have their authenticity as Jews questioned or even denied (sometimes years after such individuals have made aliyah, married and raised a family), then fewer Jews will be encouraged to align their future with that of the Jewish state.
For American Jews who have depended upon the separation of religion and state as the keystone to our acceptance and prosperity in this country, the stranglehold that the Orthodox Rabbinate has on our Israeli brethren is simply untenable.
Fortunately, the growing sentiment in Israel is trending towards civil marriage. Hopefully, Israelis will take advantage of the current political situation to liberate themselves and set a course of inclusiveness for all Jews. Such a move toward freedom of choice in marriage will increase Israelis’ religious options and strengthen Jewish identity in the Jewish state.
Susie Gelman is the immediate past president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and co-chair of the November, 2013 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Jerusalem. She is also part-owner of Washington Jewish Week.