For the first time in our country’s short history, Israeli couples will soon be
allowed to marry in civil union ceremonies, on condition that both the bride and
the groom are not Jewish.
Until now, marriage registration policy in
Israel was an extension of the Ottoman millet system, according to which each
religious community (Jewish, Muslim and Christian) was responsible for its own
However, in the wake of huge waves of immigration from the
former Soviet Union, pressure built to change the policy and allow individuals
with no religious affiliation to marry. Among more than a million immigrants who
arrived in Israel starting in the 1980s were over 300,000 non-Jews. These were
people eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return
because they had familial ties to a Jew, but who had neither been born to a
Jewish mother nor converted to Judaism. If, in the first four decades after the
creation of the state, nearly all Zionist Israelis who served in the IDF and
tied their fate to Israel’s successes and failures were Jewish, this
increasingly was no longer the case.
Therefore, the new law rectifies a
But it has given rise to a worrying push, led by
Knesset Law Committee Chairman David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), to extend the
right to a civil marriage to all Israelis, regardless of religious affiliation –
thus potentially making Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, a facilitator of
Critics of Israel’s present marriage registration policy,
which does not recognize marriages between non-Jews and Jews conducted here,
argue that this is a violation of democratic principles of equality. The state,
they say, has no right interfering with the individual liberties of its
citizens, one of which is the right to choose one’s partner regardless of race,
religion or ethnicity.
In contrast, those who argue in favor of
maintaining the status quo are faithful to the idea that Orthodoxy is the only
legitimate form of Judaism.
WE SUGGEST a “third way” that would balance
the State of Israel’s commitment to both its Jewish and democratic dimensions.
Israel, as the sovereign nation of the Jewish people, has an obligation to
encourage Jews to marry other Jews. Jews’ successful integration in the
economic, social and cultural life of America, Europe and elsewhere has resulted
in record levels of intermarriage. Diaspora Jews are finding it increasingly
difficult to maintain their unique religious and cultural identity. Even those
Jews who marry “in” are having fewer children. As a result, the world Jewish
population is falling. Israel should not be bolstering that trend; it should be
bolstering Jewish continuity. When we choose our mate, we are also choosing for
generations to come.
In parallel, the Orthodox establishment in Israel,
which has a monopoly over marriages and other religious services, has gradually
been taken over by a particularly conservative, unyielding version of Orthodoxy
that is increasingly irrelevant for most Israelis and downright hostile toward
most Diaspora Jews who are non- Orthodox.
Innovative Orthodox Jewish
leaders such as Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook had hoped that the renewal of
the Jewish people’s political sovereignty in the Land of Israel, and the
renaissance of the Hebrew language and culture, would give birth to a new
religious expression that would make denominationalism obsolete.
is clear that this has not happened. A poll conducted last year by the Smith
Research Institute found that two-thirds of Jewish Israelis and 92 percent of
secular Israelis supported ending the Orthodox monopoly over marriages. The poll
also found that 71% of Israelis supported equal state funding of non-Orthodox
Jewish denominations – such as synagogues, mikvaot (ritual baths) and rabbis’
salaries. Central Bureau of Statistics data for 2000-2006, the most recent
available, show that of about 5,000 couples that married abroad on average every
year, about a quarter were Jews marrying other Jews – many of whom could have
gotten married in Israel but did not, probably because they felt alienated from
the Chief Rabbinate.
There is a desperate need to rejuvenate Jewish
expression by breaking the haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over
marriages, divorces, conversions and other religious services.
services should be “privatized.” Orthodox and recognized non-Orthodox streams
that accept central Jewish concepts such as matrilineal descent – which includes
the Israeli Reform Movement – should be allowed to provide services in a
competitive atmosphere of “free market Judaism.” Just because the Chief
Rabbinate is not doing its job does not mean Israel should give up on
encouraging Jewish marriage. There is a third way.
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