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 populace.

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 longstanding injustice.

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 intermarriage.

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.

Today it 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.

Religious 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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