Knesset nixes civil marriage and divorce for Jews

Justice Minister says bill "stands in contrast to norm upheld since establishment of Israel" under which marriage and divorce follow halacha.

July 27, 2011 15:39
3 minute read.
Horowitz Knesset Marriage party

Horowitz Knesset Marriage party_311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The Knesset voted down an attempt on Wednesday to open the option of civil marriage and divorce to Jews in Israel.

“Israel is the only democracy in the world where Jews don’t have freedom of religion,” declared MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), who led the list of legislators behind the initiative.

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“Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are currently considered to have no religion and cannot marry in Israel,” he said prior to the vote. “When the state was founded, there was no such condition.

“In the past decade, 11 percent of Israelis who married did so overseas,” Horowitz said, “and of them 75 percent were Jews. These marriages, you recognize,” he told Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman.

“Nothing at all would happen to Judaism if there was freedom of choice in marriage,” the MK added.

However, Neeman, speaking on behalf of the government, firmly rejected the bill, “which stands in contrast to the norm upheld in Israel since the establishment of the state, according to which marriage and divorce in Israel are according to Halacha.”


Neeman stressed the danger of a situation in which Jews who married according to Jewish law would be permitted to divorce without a rabbinical court. In such an instance, the woman would be prohibited by Halacha to remarry; and if she did and had children, they would be considered bastards (mamzerim).

The minister noted that this government legislated the Civil Union Law, enabling Israelis who have no religious status to marry in Israel. Only a handful of couples have used that option since it passed a few months ago, since it entails both partners having that specific status.

“[Wednesday’s] bill is an offense to the unity of the Jewish people, who have returned to their homeland after a 2,000-year diaspora,” said Neeman.

Taking the podium after the justice minister was MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima), who attempted to speak while wearing a white dress and veil; she was forced to remove the veil.

“This bill isn’t against anything. Rather it is aimed at expanding the current arrangement, alongside Judaism, to include those who cannot marry according to Jewish law,” she said. “Some 3,500 Israelis marry in Cyprus each year; we need an alternative. This bill seeks to fix an anomaly.”

Nobody seemed surprised when 41 MKs objected to the bill, with 16 supporting it.

Wednesday’s vote is part of a larger campaign to enable freedom of choice in marriage led by the Forum for Freedom in Marriage, Be Free Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center, and Shatil. Earlier in the day, and ahead of the vote, they held a conference in the Knesset for which women supporters and lawmakers donned bridal garb, while the male MKs in their suits passed for casually dressed grooms.

The group, which has set its sights on “freeing Israeli citizens from the monopoly and coercion of the Chief Rabbinate regarding marriage and divorce,” has launched what it is describing as the largest campaign ever to deal with this issue, in at least a year of activity funded by the New Israel Fund.

Horowitz, who along with Zuaretz leads the Forum for Freedom in Marriage, noted in his plenum speech that they would be turning to the High Court of Justice.

Ahead of the Wednesday event and vote, the NGO Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality released a study commissioned by it according to which two-thirds of the Jewish population in Israel are in favor of enabling civil marriage in Israel – although only one-third would marry in such a ceremony, were it to become an option.

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