Two Knesset committees meet to discuss civil marriage

Civil Marriage – are we getting closer?

In Israel, there has been increased attention on marriage rights in general and civil marriage in particular. A significant part of Hiddush’s work is focused on these very issues. This month alone, two Knesset committees have held hearings on the matter.

Married couple, source: PixnioMarried couple, source: Pixnio
  1. The Domestic Affairs Committee held a hearing focused on the State’s refusal to register Utah’s online weddings;
  2. The Committee on Special National Infrastructure Projects and Jewish Religious Services held a hearing on civil marriage just this Tuesday.

Hiddush’s CEO spoke at both hearings, and we submitted position papers, which provided added value anchored in our unique public opinion surveys, our unique global marriage freedom project, and our spearheading the legal battle for the registration of Utah marriages. Hiddush currently has three administrative petitions pending in the courts on this matter. Both hearings were chaired by highly supportive politicians who are part of the current government coalition.

However, while the hearings gave expression to the growing interest in the political arena and to the public’s overwhelming support… it is clear that a move towards legislating civil marriage and divorce is not around the corner. This will take much more time and effort to achieve. Nevertheless, we must not throw up our hands, but rather – we must double our efforts to generate sufficient constructive pressure on those political elements of the government coalition (especially the Prime Minister’s own party – Yamina) that oppose civil marriage. The gap must be closed between the overwhelming majority support for freedom of marriage among Jewish Israeli adults and the bastions of opposition found primarily among such parties as Yamina and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Yamina’s second in command (a token secular Israeli), Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, repeatedly announces her view that all Jews in Israel should be subject to Orthodox religious marriage laws under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. Needless to say, the ultra-Orthodox parties’ opposition is even more strident and shrill. They adamantly claim that if the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriages of all Jews in Israel is fractured, this would mark the demise of the Jewish people and of Israel’s Jewish character.

While this represents a small minority view, the majority of Israel’s Jewish parties are reluctant to move in the necessary direction of granting marriage freedom to all Israelis, for most of them are still hoping to potentially enlist the ultra-Orthodox parties into the coalition, whether in the current term, or in a different, future configuration. Clearly, as we have written repeatedly, political expediency takes priority over core democratic principles, the will of the majority (for instance, see the graph below demonstrating the views of the public according to votes in the last Knesset elections), and the changes necessary to strengthen the bond between Israel and the rest of the Jewish people.

The desirable resolution is clear – namely, legislating civil marriage and divorce, but it is just as important to move towards the best possible partial solutions in the interim. We stressed this in our statement before the committees and pointed to the potential breakthrough represented by Utah online weddings as sitting atop this list and allowing foreign consulates to offer civil marriages to Israeli couples as desirable as well.

The first (Utah weddings) only needs a court ruling in favor of Hiddush’s petitions to bring the Population Registry in line, requiring it to abide by the uninterrupted chain of precedents of the Supreme Court ordering it to register overseas civil marriages, beginning in the early 60’s and repeating at every juncture when the Ministry of the Interior came up with a new excuse for refusing to register legal, valid overseas marriage certificates. The challenge to consular marriages would be potentially greater if it is to serve all Israelis, rather than only those associated with particular countries’ consulates. Also, it would require that these foreign countries authorize their consulates to offer overseas marriage services.

While clearly still fraught with legal challenges, it’s interesting to note that Yamina’s Minister of Religious Services, Matan Kahana, chose to leak a potential deal this week to offer some measure of permission for marriages performed at foreign consulates in return for a willingness on the part of the “liberals” to amend the Law of Return and revoke the “grandchild clause” (which grants the grandchildren of Jews the Right of Return, even if they are not halakhically Jewish and accounts for the overwhelming majority of recent waves of Aliyah from the FSU, whose only entitlement to receive Israeli citizenship is on account of their Jewish grandfathers). Luckily, while it’s not clear who he thought would agree to this objectionable deal, it was met with immediate rejection by Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Labor, all of which made it clear they would not agree to a change in the Law of Return and resent the notion that the right of marriage should be contingent on surrendering rights under the Law of Return.

Halihal provided a statistical perspective, underscoring the fact that over the course of the last twenty years more than 150,000 Israeli couples married civilly overseas and registered their marriages with the Population Registry.

You may CLICK HERE for graphs of some of the data we provided the Religious Services Committee this week. All the survey data is taken from Hiddush’s 2021 Israel Religion & State Index. In addition to turning the Committee members’ attention to the compelling marriage freedom video, which Hiddush prepared.

Among the other individuals and couples who spoke at the hearing were Dr. Ahmad Halihal, a senior official from the government’s Central Bureau of Statistics and the Modern Orthodox legal scholar Prof. Shahar Lifshitz, chair of the Bar Ilan University Center for Jewish and Democratic Law who helped found the Israeli Congress for Judaism and Democracy.

Halihal provided a statistical perspective, underscoring the fact that over the course of the last twenty years more than 150,000 Israeli couples married civilly overseas and registered their marriages with the Population Registry. Moreover, he stressed that there is no obligation to register such marriages and that his figures relate only to those who chose to do so. He said that approximately 7,500 Israeli couples annually marry civilly overseas and register their marriages in Israel’s population registry. ~25% of these couples are comprised of two Jewish partners; ~30% include one Jewish partner and the other of “no religion”; ~20% include one Jewish partner and the other with no status or residency in Israel; ~12% include couples in which both partners are of “no religion”. Halihal stressed that over the years only a handful (hundreds) of Arabs have taken this avenue.

Prof. Lifshitz described the current state of affairs as “truly intolerable”. He outlined the acute situation, involving three categories of couples that are harmed:

  1. couples that cannot marry in Israel, due to religious-legal limitations (mixed couples, individuals without religion, LGBTQ, etc.); “all the people who, in essence, entitled to marry in any other country in the world, but the State of Israel denies them this right;”
  2. couples who can marry according to Jewish law but want to do it their way, (i.e., invite a male or female rabbi whom they identify with), but Israeli law denies them the ability to chose how to conduct their marriage ceremonies;
  3. 3) the problem of individuals who are denied “gets” (religious-legal divorces): “people who marry religiously and find themselves subjected to the religious laws of divorce in a reality in which at least some of the rabbinical courts do not respect the possibility of one party saying, ‘I want to end our bond because it no longer suits me’. The courts require religiously mandated causes for divorces, often intrusive ones, as well as failing to treat men and women equally. It’s very important to put this category on the table on the side of those who are not permitted to marry and those who ideologically refuse to marry via the Chief Rabbinate.”

Lifshitz advocated for a compromise, which would establish two parallel tracks, which he wrote about in detail some years ago in a book he published on “the Couplehood Covenant”. While he supports the notion of attempting to find a workable compromise (which this column cannot elaborate on), we should point out that while his intention praiseworthy, the compromise he proposes is not.

First of all, it denies the couples the symbolic equal standing as “married” (replacing it with a problematic couple of “Covenant of Couplehood”). Second of all, he stresses that in order to avoid religious illegitimacy of children (mamzerut), such couples who may opt for this alternative need to ensure the authorities that they do not wish to be married in accordance with Jewish norms. This is clearly a non-starter for both Modern Orthodox egalitarian couples, as well as Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist ones. Moreover, we have serious doubts as to whether such a compromise would truly ward off the concern of the religious illegitimacy of children when fundamentalist religious authorities like many in Israel’s rabbinical court system and in the Chief Rabbinate are involved.

We close this column with one additional vignette from this week’s hearing:

Representing a growing move on the part of Modern Orthodox individuals and leaders, MK Moshe Tur-Paz (who chose to join Yesh Atid) expressed his support for allowing civil marriage in Israel, quoting his late mentor and yeshiva head R. Yehuda Amital, who wrote in 2007: “I doubt that the current status quo should be maintained… I have supported the possibility of civil marriage for couples who are not permitted to marry under halakhic rules. However, today I believe that this option should be allowed to anyone who wants it… This will not really harm the Jewish character of Israeli society. On the contrary, many of those who today turn to the path of civil marriage do so due to resistance against religious coercion and the religious establishment...”

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