Life in limbo for thousands of couples unable to marry during COVID-19

Creative solutions for civil marriage during the current crisis such as weddings in foreign embassies and on boats in international waters have been proposed to alleviate the crisis

An illustrative photo of a Jewish wedding in front of the Mediterranean Sea. (photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
An illustrative photo of a Jewish wedding in front of the Mediterranean Sea.
(photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
Victoria Zvyagintsev was set to get married next March. Plans were well advanced, dates had been set, and arrangements made for the big day.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic reached Israel, all of those plans were shredded as the country went into lockdown and weddings and other gatherings were halted.
And while other couples have married in small ceremonies following the end of the initial lockdown, Victoria and her fiancé have not been able to get married and their prospects of tying the knot at present seem slim.
This is because Victoria and her partner were to marry in a civil ceremony in Russia, a marriage which would then be recognized back in Israel by the Interior Ministry.
Victoria is the child of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Although they are Jewish, she herself is not Jewish according to Jewish law.
Since there is no provision for civil marriage in Israel itself, Victoria, together with thousands of other couples, is unable to get married in the Jewish state where all marriages must be conducted through the established religious institutions of the different religious communities present in the country.
People like Victoria and thousands of others are therefore stuck in limbo, unable to fly abroad to marry civilly and either unable or unwilling to marry through the Chief Rabbinate in Israel
In recent years, around 9,000 couples have registered civil marriages in Israel which were conducted abroad, often in countries such as Cyprus, the US, and Czech Republic.
But since March, arranging such weddings has been all but impossible due to the massive reduction in commercial flights, restrictions on the entry of foreign nationals into other countries, and quarantine requirements.
Since the religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox parties firmly oppose any provision for civil marriage in Israel, even in the current circumstances, many couples now face great uncertainty over when they might get married.
For some this presents serious and urgent problems.
Keren Siman Tov, an activist who has sought to find solutions for herself and others during this time, says that she knows couples who are expecting babies and want to get married before the child is born but now cannot do so.
Victoria notes that she and her fiancé wish to begin a family but have two problems: First, they do not want to do so without being married and second, they require state assistance for fertility treatments to do so.
She says the cancellation of her wedding and her and her husband’s ongoing inability to get married threw her into a “deep depression” earlier this year.
“This is discrimination and a total lack of justice. Politicians promised us solutions but we have been ignored,” she said.
Keren herself is still waiting to get married, having gotten engaged in June. Although she and her fiancé are both Jewish and could get married through the Chief Rabbinate, they are ideologically opposed to the institution and its management of religious affairs, and are unwilling to get married under its auspices.
“Damage has been done to the [religion and state] status quo during the coronavirus crisis,” she notes, observing that whereas over the last 30 years it has allowed civil marriage, that has de facto changed due to the restrictions caused by COVID-19.
“Our civil rights are being harmed; we and others like us have to put our lives on hold,” Keren said. “A world health crisis shouldn’t create even more religious coercion.”
Some creative solutions have been proposed of late, including one pursued by the Foreign Ministry to have civil marriages performed in the embassies or consulates of foreign countries in Israel.
Only one country, Norway, responded that it might be able to perform such weddings in its embassy and consulates, but this would only be possible if the government made provision for it, even on a temporary basis – something which the religious parties look unlikely to grant.
During a hearing of the Knesset Interior Committee at the beginning of November, officials from the Interior Ministry said they would examine the proposals and report back but have so far not provided an update.
Another solution proposed during the hearing was to conduct civil marriages at sea in international waters.
The suggestion is to travel in a boat outside of Israel’s territorial waters which extend 19 km. beyond the shore and conduct civil marriages in international waters which could then be recognized by the Interior Ministry.
Crucially, the boats would have to be registered under the flag of a country which allows civil marriage registration for foreign nationals in international waters, such as nearby Malta.
Attorney Vlad Finkelshtein, who was asked by Yisrael Beytenu MK Evgeny Sova to assist on this issue, has been putting together an initiative which would make this idea feasible.
The idea is for a Maltese company to hire Israeli boats and register them in Malta so that they could sail under a Maltese flag and thus be able to register Israelis for civil marriage in international waters.
Finkelshtein is in touch with the Maltese Interior Ministry and its attorney-general and is awaiting authorization for his initiative.
He says that couples could start making use of the program this coming January or February.
“This is a human rights issue because there are so many couples who just cannot get married,” he said.
He added that due to the severe economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, people would have less money to travel abroad for civil marriage, making creative solutions in Israel, or just outside it, even more important.
Keren thinks that the embassy or the international waters solution would be acceptable as a temporary fix, but is angry with politicians for having abandoned constituents such as herself.
“Many election promises were made by politicians who have now betrayed us. I can’t blame the ultra-Orthodox parties for not finding us a solution, because they don’t want to lose their power,” she said.
“But there are many MKs who are supposed to be on our side. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like they care very much about us,” Keren lamented.
“One day, I hope there will be a political price for abandoning us during this crisis.”