THE RABBINICAL court of Tel Aviv. It has been said that rabbinical courts allow men to hold back consent to divorce their wives in order to extort the women into agreeing to unfair overall terms..
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
This week’s news that 54% of the olim – immigrants via the Law of Return – are not Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law should be a wake-up call for the government and religious establishment of this country.
The Central Bureau of Statistics reported that out of 30,300 olim who immigrated to Israel last year, only 12,600 are halachically Jewish, while 17,700 are not.
The number of non-Jewish olim corresponds almost exactly to the number of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants who came to Israel last year: 17,000. About a third of Israel’s immigrants from the former Soviet Union are estimated not to be halachically Jewish, amounting to about 400,000 people, and by some estimates, they will reach half a million by 2030.
These are citizens who, for the most part, move here, get jobs, pay taxes and send their children to serve in the IDF. They are law-abiding citizens. Then, when that generation gets out of the army, dates, falls in love, and wants to get married, they hit a brick wall.
This is because in Israel, one can only legally get married in a religious ceremony. If you’re Jewish, you can only marry another Jew via the Chief Rabbinate – not even under any rabbi one wants, because a non-rabbinate Jewish wedding became illegal in recent years. And if you’re Muslim, you can only marry another Muslim via the Muslim section of the Religious Services Ministry. The same applies to Druze, Christians, etc.
But what happens if you have no religion? Or if you view yourself as Jewish – as many who moved to Israel under the Law of Return do – but the rabbinate says you are not according to their strict Orthodox criteria?
Then, you can either convert to Judaism under the auspices of the ultra-Orthodox-controlled rabbinate, which entails a commitment to living an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. But this is not made easy by the rabbinate. Many obstacles are placed along the way.
There are Orthodox groups that provide more lenient conversions, based on the fact that these people tend to have Jewish ancestry, or that converting children is easier than adults. They argue that more lenient conversions is the way to prevent the highly prevalent intermarriage that is to some extent responsible for decreasing Jewish involvement in major Diaspora communities from reaching Israel. But that would still require these people to want to be Jewish, and to commit to living with some level of Jewish observance, and not everyone will be willing to do that.
Or, you can go abroad to get married, and the Interior Ministry will recognize that marriage.
These are not acceptable options for the Jewish state. Since 1970, Israel’s standard for who can immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, meaning, who can make aliyah as a Jew, is the Nuremberg Laws standard: anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, or anyone who converted to Judaism. The idea behind this standard is that anyone who is persecuted for being Jewish can find a safe haven in Israel.
While Israel fulfills that promise of safety from antisemitic persecution, it does not provide equal rights to olim who are not halachically Jewish when it comes to life-cycle events. These problems will continue to crop up after marriage in areas like divorce, should that arise, and burial. And they will continue with their children.
The solution to this problem is to abolish the rabbinate’s monopoly.
Israel should, at the very least, establish civil marriage for people of no religion or for people with religion who want a different route to establish relationships.
But in a truly free and democratic country, people should be allowed a choice in their religious observance. As things stand in Israel today, people are essentially forced to do as the Orthodox do in marriage and divorce – along with the horrific abuses of the aguna, or “chained woman” phenomenon, by which a woman can be banned from marrying anyone else until her first husband deigns to grant her a divorce.
Until then, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are themselves chained to a system that does not work for them by design and does not look like it will be changed anytime soon. The time has come for Israel to recognize the reality it has imposed on its new citizens and find a way to fix it.
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