Call for freedom of marriage on the rise

Media Review: A significant rise in reporting on Israel's marriage crisis

In the past few months, thanks to cooperative efforts between Hiddush and other like-minded organizations in Israel and America, the issue of freedom of marriage has been extensively covered in Israeli and international media.

''Putting Us All in One Box''--from the Campaign for Free Marriage in Israel''Putting Us All in One Box''--from the Campaign for Free Marriage in Israel

Though the problem has gone unsolved for decades, Israel's marriage crisis is beginning to gain leverage in Israeli and international media. Journalist Batya Ungar-Sargon concisely summed up the issue most recently in Tablet Magazine, saying, "Israel has a marriage problem." Though the problem is simply described, the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate's monopoly on personal status, which effects millions (both Israeli citizens and Jews around the world), is creating a buzz which will hopefully widen the path to bring significant change in Israel's policies regarding personal status.

Reporting by Israeli and Jewish media on the lack of freedom of marriage has visibly increased in recent months. The Jerusalem Post recently published an editorial entitled: "Dissolve the Rabbinate" in which they highlight the problematic political involvement of religious figures on state salary and its damaging effect on Israel's democratic character:

"Israel is, and should remain, a Jewish state. But this goal is best accomplished through legislation such as the Law of Return, laws governing Shabbat as a day of rest and Jewish holidays as national holidays…However, Israel should avoid empowering religious individuals or groups with clear political affiliations. That’s because when these individuals or groups gain control over the Chief Rabbinate or the Religious Services Ministry they inevitably exploit their position to further the narrow interests of their constituents."

The Jerusalem Post's editorial board released a similar sentiment right before the elections for Israel's Chief Rabbinate. Instead of endorsing any of the Orthodox male candidates, the board preferred to call for the de-centralization of the Chief Rabbinate's powers:

 "For the sake of religious freedom there needs to be a separation. Like all citizens of Israel, rabbis are entitled to full intellectual freedom. But in order to provide this freedom the rabbinate must relinquish its state-backed monopoly over religious services and rabbis should stop receiving a salary from the state’s coffers."

Yair Sheleg, an Israeli journalist and research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, published an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week, in which he wrote about the dangers that Israel's religion and state dynamic poses towards the country's western democratic values. He does not advocate for a complete separation of religion and state in Israel (similar to Hiddush) but rather argues for a clear separation between religion and the private sphere. Sheleg concluded the op-ed by focusing on the issue of marriage in Israel:

"What is not proper, though, is for the state to impose norms derived from the religious world on the lives of individuals; this relates, first and foremost, to the exclusive Orthodox control of marriage and divorce in Israel. This monopoly is highly problematic in terms of human rights, even when grounded in the lofty Jewish principle of preserving the nation’s unity…In a fair balance between Jewish and liberal rights, it is wrong for the Orthodox monopoly in so intimate an area as marriage and divorce to continue to be forced on Israeli citizens."

The rise in media recognition for Israel's struggle for freedom of marriage is seen in international press as well. The Los Angeles Times wrote an article about the quarrel over divorce in Israel that leaves many Jewish women trapped in their marriages. The author of the article recognized the Orthodox monopoly on personal status as the root of this problem:

"In Israel, there is no civil marriage, so Jews must wed in accordance with the rabbinate's Orthodox customs. Many opt for civil ceremonies abroad, which over the years have become legally recognized in Israel. But while the law has bent to permit different ways into marriage, there is still only one way out: the religious court."

There will likely be more coverage of Israel's marriage crisis as the issue makes its way into the Knesset's agenda. Several policymakers, including Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, have expressed their commitments to initiate bills that will provide viable solutions for the hundreds of thousands Israelis who are unable to marry in Israel because of the Chief Rabbinate's exclusionary policies.

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