'Hundreds of thousands can’t marry in Israel'

There is growing mistrust in the chief rabbinate which has exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce, and the increasing public support for civil marriage.

A Jewish wedding. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE PHOTO: WWW.GOISRAEL.COM)
A Jewish wedding.
“We’ve got no-one to rely on apart from our Father in Heaven and the High Court of Justice,” said Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern on Monday in relation to the current legal options for marriage, divorce, conversion and other religious services.
Stern, who heads the lobby along with fellow party member MK Aliza Lavie, was referencing the growing numbers of people unable to marry in Israel, the growing mistrust of the chief rabbinate which has exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce, and the increasing public support for civil marriage.
“It pains me to say such things, especially as an MK, but this is unfortunately the reality.”
According to Hiddush, a religious pluralism lobbying group, some 660,000 citizens who are either from the former Soviet Union, gay, non-Orthodox converts to Judaism or have specific types of Jewish personal status, are currently unable to marry in Israel.
This figure was presented to the People, Religion and State Knesset lobby on Monday, which discussed the current options available for marriage and the prevailing situation in which tens of thousands of people are unable to get married in the country where they live and have citizenship.
Hiddush r conducted research based on statistics from the Central Bureau of Statistics. The organization found that there are 364,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are classified as “without religion” and therefore cannot get married in Israel.
Such immigrants are essentially people from the former Soviet Union who were able to gain Israeli citizenship under the law of return but are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law.
Since the various established religious institutions representing the different faiths in Israel have sole jurisdiction over the marriage and divorce in Israel and there is no state-mandated civil marriage, anyone classified as “without religion” is unable to marry in the country.
Hiddush calculated that there are 284,000 homosexuals in the country, who also cannot marry due to the lack of civil marriage, 13,000 non-Orthodox Jewish converts and 5,000 people ineligible for Jewish marriage for various reasons of Jewish law.
Another group numbering almost 400,000 people face potential restrictions on who they can marry due to the constraints of Jewish law and the lack of civil marriage.
In Jewish law, a divorcée or a convert may not marry a Cohen, the Jewish priestly caste, and the Chief Rabbinate will not permit such marriages to be conducted or registered. There are some 80,000 males in Israel who have priestly lineage, who are unable to marry a divorcée or convert.
Some 269,000 divorcées would not be able to marry a Cohen if they so wished and 50,000 Jewish converts would similarly be unable to marry a Cohen if they so wished.
“The number of Israeli couples who want to be released from the restraints of the rabbinate is increasing,” said Hiddush director Uri Regev. “At the same time, the disgust in the general public with the political horse trading, which is conducted at the expense of freedom of marriage is growing. It’s not just that the rabbinate’s monopoly doesn’t contribute to the preservation of Judaism, it is making Judaism hateful to the general public and causing it to identify Judaism with zealotry, discrimination and darkness.”
A poll conducted by the Smith Institute for Hiddush also found that 64 percent of the Jewish-Israeli public support the establishment of civil marriage and 64% also support recognition of gay marriage.
Seventy percent of people identifying as secular said they would chose civil marriage if it were an option, although in total only 37% of the general Jewish public said they would get married in a civil ceremony.
“We are all aware that we need to find an alternative for those who cannot get married through the Rabbinate,” said Shuki Friedman, director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation and State, at the lobby hearing.
“We also know that real change comes from the bottom up – from grassroots work. We, the people around the table, need to vote for an alternative.”
Stern said the facts and statistics were testament to a growing abandonment of Jewish religious services and ceremonies due to the prevailing monopoly of the religious establishment.
“People are giving on the religious establishment and more people are going abroad to marry or or marrying outside of the rabbinate including religious people,” said Stern.
The fiery MK said he did not see any hope that the current Knesset or the political echelon in general would establish civil marriage in the near future.
“Good tidings on this issue will not come from politics, it will come from the people and the High Court of Justice,” he continued.
Stern said that once there are enough couples in Israel who have married outside of the chief rabbinate then a petition could be made to the High Court of Justice demanding that the state recognize them as married.
Lavie drew attention to a current law that bans rabbis from performing an Orthodox wedding service outside of the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.
Rabbis doing so could be fined and even imprisoned for violating this law.
“Israel is the only country in the world that puts people in jail for putting up a wedding canopy and conducing a marriage ceremony,” she said. “Next Sunday, I will propose my bill requesting to cancel these unnecessary and harmful criminal sanctions. We need to confront our country’s new reality – more and more young people are choosing to marry without a religious ceremony, without the Chief Rabbinate.”