Israel’s marriage laws are discriminatory

Israel must embrace its promise for “freedom of religion and conscience... and equality” as a blueprint for a modern democratic Jewish state.

TelAviv wedding (photo credit: Nomi Yogev)
TelAviv wedding
(photo credit: Nomi Yogev)
This week, leaders of Jewish communities are convening in Jerusalem for the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America. The GA bears great significance for Israel’s future and relationship with American Jewry. For the first time, the GA will be tackling the controversial issue of freedom of marriage in Israel, critical for Israel-Diaspora relations.
I applaud this important step and am glad to be able to point to other major Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee [AJC] and National Council of Jewish Women [NCJW] who adopted public positions supporting freedom of marriage in Israel. I hope that many other organizations and communities will follow suit and express their support and love for Israel by advocating for freedom of religion and equality.
This unfortunately has yet to happen and until it does, the risk of losing solidarity and support of the future generation of Diaspora Jewry exponentially increases.
That’s not to say no one is trying.
One of the most expensive and ambitious initiatives to bond the next generation of world Jewry to Israel comes from Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office. It’s thrust is: “The Government of Israel is determined to champion and co-create, with World Jewry, a multi-layered initiative that guarantees a thriving future for the next generation of Jews.”
It brought together an international consultation last week that involved over a hundred key lay leaders, renowned professionals and Israeli officials. The consultation’s participants were clearly committed not to rock the boat nor embarrass Israel’s government.
Their disregard, with few subdued exceptions, for the root issues of freedom of religion and marriage is worrisome and would likely bring about the initiative’s ultimate failure if not addressed.
In 2013, Jewish identity and bonds with Israel are no longer self-evident. Collective memories of the Holocaust, Israel’s founding, and the Six Day War have little effect on future Jewish identity and mutual responsibility. The next generation’s connection with Jewish peoplehood is individualized, autonomous and constantly re-shaping. Many leaders of major Jewish organizations grapple with this reality and seek ways to bring to the table a generation that “did not know Joseph.”
Travel programs like Birthright and Masa have a demonstrated impact on strengthening Jewish identity and building relationships with Israel, but these successes will ultimately be confronted by the daunting reality resulting from Israel’s politicians’ decision to vest all authority over marriage of Jews in the hands of the haredi Orthodox rabbinate.
In the past month Rabbi Avi Weiss, a leading modern Orthodox rabbi and long-term advocate for Israel, blasted the Chief Rabbinate when they rejected the validity of his confirmation of a former congregant’s Jewish status for the purpose of marriage. It further sensitized him to the disgraceful status of the current state of affairs and brought him to call for freedom of marriage in Israel.
Similarly, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in a public discussion with me at the AJC’s Global Forum acknowledged that Israel must fully recognize civil and non-Orthodox marriages and remove coercion from Jewish life in Israel.
When such staple modern Orthodox leaders and fervent advocates of the State of Israel publicly speak of the need to include civil and a clear sign of the changing times that have not yet reached the religious and political establishment in Jerusalem.
Do Jewish leaders seriously believe that Israel can successfully engage the next generation of Diaspora Jewry while aware that Israel would deny most of them equality, respect and recognition of their Jewish choices? Israel’s marriage laws not only refuse hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens the right to marry, but as Hiddush’s Freedom of Marriage World Map clearly demonstrates, the laws place Israel in the unenviable fellowship of the world’s fundamentalist Islamic countries as the only democracy in the world that denies its citizens this basic right.
Hiddush recently published selections from former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak’s forthcoming book on Human Dignity: The constitutional Right and its Derivatives, which illustrates the far-reaching damage of Israel’s religious marriage laws: “Anyone who is unable to marry according to religious law, and anyone who does not want to marry according to religious law for their own reasons, cannot marry in Israel.
Civil marriage is not recognized in Israel. This state of affairs violates the constitutional right to marriage... the right to freedom of conscience and freedom from religion...
[and] the right to equality.”
These violations of basic human rights stand in sheer contrast to the desire of the overwhelming majority of Israelis. A clear majority of the Israeli public support freedom of marriage and Jewish pluralism. Hiddush’s 2013 Religion and State Index, in congruence with other studies, found 62 percent of Israelis support official recognition of non-Orthodox and civil marriages and 67% support equal recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis.
The widely-discussed Pew study of the American Jewish population found that the intermarriage rate among American Jews is 58%.
These families, along with thousands of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist converts to Judaism and their children, are a crucial and active part of the Jewish fold.
Similarly in Israel, 350,000 citizens who immigrated from the FSU and are children or grandchildren of intermarriages are not considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate. That demographic grows annually by approximately 5,000 children.
As a result, none of them enjoy the legal right to marry in Israel altogether. Many other citizens are denied the right to legally marry in Israel due to other religious restrictions that Orthodox rabbinate imposes on them. Israelis as well as world Jewry share an interest in a sustainable solution based on freedom of religion and the cherished right to family.
This problem is a direct continuation of the historic “Who is a Jew” battle, which at its peak, jeopardized the financial and political support of Diaspora Jewry. While the direct assault on non-Orthodox conversions was successfully countered, the efforts did not grant converts full recognition and dignity.
None of them is fully recognized as Jewish enough to legally marry in Israel. What we need is consistent Diaspora advocacy, involvement in confronting these inequities, and partnership with fellow Israelis so as to go beyond periodic crises and guide Israel to civil freedom and inclusivity as envisaged by Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
The cause of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish mutual responsibility is paramount for Israel-Diaspora relations.
This effort will take more than creative programming and large financial investments like the prime minister’s initiative. It will require a bold resolution on the part of those convening in Jerusalem to tell Netanyahu openly: it is unacceptable for Israel to threaten Jewish Peoplehood by denying equal rights to more than half of the children in the American Jewish community.
Creating an honest, long-lasting relationship between Israel and the Diaspora requires the acknowledgement that Israel is the state of the entire Jewish people.
The Orthodox Rabbinate cannot remain the only yardstick for Jewish legitimacy. Israel must embrace its promise for “freedom of religion and conscience... and equality” as a blueprint for a modern democratic Jewish state. Only an Israel that lives up to this noble vision and celebrates Jewish pluralism will be able to continuously blossom and capture the hearts of the global diversified Jewish community to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
The author heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel.