Criminalizing marriage in Israel

A fundamental pattern of anti-democratic government actions is emerging that constitutes an attempt by the government to obtain illegitimate and excessive power over people’s private lives.

December 7, 2014 13:14
3 minute read.
Marriage certificate

A bride and groom sign a marriage certificate before their wedding in November 2013.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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For the first time in Israel’s history, the Jewish state has passed a law that criminalizes a purely private religious act that harms no one, and subjects persons who engage in that act to time in prison. Israeli Jews who participate in marriage ceremonies outside of the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbis who officiate such ceremonies are subject to a penalty of two years’ imprisonment.

Israeli legislators liked this idea so much, in fact, that they affirmed it twice – once when they slipped it in at the last minute to the Tzohar bill and a second time, this week, when an effort by MK Aliza Lavie to undo this provision was blocked in the Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs. That fateful meeting included some powerful supporters of the prime minister voting against this most basic expression of human rights, while other voices were notably absent, including a disappointing abstention by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

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At the end of the day, this draconian provision, and the repressive impulses that animate it, were upheld.

No one doubts that Israel has the power to regulate marriage in appropriate ways. But these regulations ought to be minimal owing to the most private and intimate nature of the consecration of marriage. So, for example, officiants may be asked to register themselves prior to conducting a wedding to ensure that the wedding is properly recorded for the protection of the marrying parties. But, beyond that interest in protecting the couple in a secular sense, a properly democratic government ought take no interest in the nature of that ceremony or the religious convictions that underlie it. Lawmakers in open societies around the world limit themselves to the most nominal oversight in this most private of private domains, in recognition that this is not where good government belongs.

What is most troubling about this penalty (if one needs further explanation of why a bride and groom should not be jailed for standing under the huppa, or marriage canopy, with a rabbi of their choosing) is that it inflicts a double, and gratuitously harsh, dose of punishment. The Israeli government, having already excluded marriages performed by rabbis not associated with the Chief Rabbinate from official recognition as “marriage” by the state, has no interest in those private religious ceremonies. Those sacred moments will have no impact whatsoever on the taxes the couple pays, the disposition of their assets in the event of a divorce, or any other issue in which the state could argue some legitimate interest for the public good.

We have long known that Israeli governments kowtow to the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, as exemplified by the government’s behavior in this instance, because the haredi community can deliver block votes to someone seeking to become prime minister. But the Israeli elected officials voting (or not voting) in the ministerial committee have crossed a line here that leaves a stain on their own legitimacy. Now, the quid pro quo that haredim demand for their votes is neither merely an economic monopoly nor the withholding of religious recognition, but that Knesset lawmakers imprison Jews with the audacity to participate in wedding ceremonies in accordance with their own consciences and remove all of their freedoms for a period of two years. Israeli lawmakers had two bites at this apple – and they gave in both times.

This is a bridge way too far.

A fundamental pattern of anti-democratic government actions, such as this one, is emerging that constitutes an attempt by the Israeli government to obtain illegitimate and excessive power over people’s private lives. Oppressive government never emerges all at once. Generally, governments moving along this path begin with disregard of selective rights, but history shows that this pattern can quickly accelerate to seriously erode the broader democratic fabric of a society. This law must be overturned.

The author is a rabbi and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. Follow her on Twitter: @RJSchonfeld.

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