Challenging the consensus of the Israeli family

As face of Israeli family changes, argues New Family's Irit Rosenblum, the law needs to change with it.

nuclear family 88 298 (photo credit: )
nuclear family 88 298
(photo credit: )
Though she might not yet know it, January 28 will mark a significant day in the life of one-year-old Talia. It is not her birthday, nor is it her first day at nursery school. In fact the day will likely be forgotten amid the clutter of her other life-cycle events; however January 28 is the day the State of Israel will finally recognize Talia's Moroccan-born Muslim biological father as her true parent, when it receives the results of a court-ordered DNA test to verify his paternity. Tamir (all the names have been changed) met Talia's mother Anna, a Russian-born Jew, in 2003. With both of them being secular, the fact they were of different faiths was never an issue, says Tamir. The couple was married by a lawyer in Paraguay last year, and now the family hopes to register itself with the Interior Ministry. And Tamir wants to be named on his daughter's birth certificate, but in a country with strict immigration laws for non-Jews and religious laws governing marriages, the couple is struggling with what should be a simple task. "I've had to take loans out from the bank to pay for all these procedures," says Tamir, 26, who followed his Jewish half-brother here six years ago and stayed even after his passport and visa expired. "A lawyer wanted NIS 4,000 for a consultation, and translating all the documentation from Arabic to Hebrew was also expensive. I want to make my life here but it's almost impossible." Less than a year ago, when Talia was just three months old, Anna flew to Paraguay to "marry" through a lawyer there. Returning with the marriage license, she and Tamir believed they would have little problem registering as a family unit with the Interior Ministry. "Every time we present them with the required documentation, they ask for something more," sighs Tamir, as he recounts the bureaucratic hurdles they have had to jump during the past six months - heightened security checks because Tamir comes from an Arab country, separate interrogations by ministry clerks to determine if they were really married and months of waiting to see if the application was successful. "They work very slowly in the Interior Ministry," says Tamir bitterly. "They asked me how many pictures hang on the wall in my house. It's ridiculous, I don't pay attention to these things." The ministry finally agreed to grant him a six-month visa, the first step before filing for permanent residency, he says. However, when he asked if he could now register himself as Talia's father, the ministry presented him with a new request: a DNA test. "We just don't know what other surprises are still in store for us," he says. WHILE THEIR story is certainly complicated, Anna and Tamir are certainly not unique. According to Irit Rosenblum, director of the New Family organization, which champions the rights of Israelis to establish marriages or unions outside the traditional system, the couple is only one of more than 800,000 families here who live outside the "regular" family consensus and struggle on a daily basis to obtain the same rights and services afforded to other families. "The consensus says that a family in Israel can only be a man and woman united in an Orthodox Jewish marriage," states Rosenblum. "That means single-parent families are not allowed, gay parents are not allowed, common law unions are not allowed, civil marriages are not allowed and interfaith marriages are not allowed." Moreover, she says, while unconventional unions are largely accepted - even if not practiced - by most of mainstream society, the establishment and the legal system do not provide for them or recognize them in the same way they do the traditional nuclear family. Rosenblum, a former legal adviser for the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO), founded New Family six years ago to provide legal aid and information to "alternative" families. One of its goals is to advance the legislation of a basic family law so that the state recognizes and accepts every type of couple and family structure. Rosenblum points out that because Israel has no written constitution, rather a system of basic laws and rights, there is a desperate need for such a law. "We need a basic set of laws for the family so that all those with different sorts of family construction will be given constitutional status, which is a basic human right," she says. She notes that there have been some gains in the past few years affording those in common law marriages equal rights to obtain mortgages and fertility treatments, but insists the country still has a long way to go before it catches up with other Western democracies. "Over the last few years there have been great changes in most of the Western world regarding marriage," she says. "Israel is the only democracy in the world that has still not separated the state from religion. We can't go on like this. In Israel, a person is able to live a normal life of freedom and individualism but at the end of the day, when it comes to marriages or divorces, for example, the clock is turned back 2,000 years." Barbara S. Okun, an associate professor in the Hebrew University's Department of Sociology and Anthropology, has studied trends in the family both here and abroad. "There has been a dramatic change in family structure in developing countries since the 1960s," she says. "There have been increases in non-marital cohabitation, a postponement of marriage to later ages and a growing separation between marriage and fertility, whereby a higher proportion of children are born to women who are not formally married when they give birth. The separation of marriage and fertility in part reflects growing fertility among unmarried women, many of whom are involved in cohabiting relationships." In addition, there have been increases in divorce rates in many developed societies over the last 30-40 years, thus challenging the concept of marriage as a lifetime commitment. "What also happens is that often after divorce, rather than remarrying, couples opt to cohabit, creating complex stepfamilies," Okun continues, adding that a growth in homosexual pairings has been an impetus to legal changes that recognize the rights of unmarried couples, including cohabiting heterosexual couples. While changes in the family are clearly visible in the US and Europe, in Israel the figures are still pretty low, says Okun. In Scandinavia, the number of women giving birth without being married is as high as 50 percent and in the US it is 30%; among Israel's Jewish population it is still only 2%-3%, she says. "Divorce is also lower here than in most Western countries, but it is also on the rise," she says. AFTER divorcing his wife of 30 years, Benny Abramovitch, 56, was not looking to settle down in another marriage. But after a few months, he met Ninita, 30, a Filipina working here legally as a caregiver. The two became close companions and three years later decided to make their union official, but not with a marriage. "We are not looking for that because she is Catholic and after 30 years of marriage I am not sure I believe in that institution anymore," Abramovitch explains. However, when the two presented themselves to register a common law marriage at the Interior Ministry last April, he was told that Ninita would have to leave the country and return only at Abramovitch's invitation. The couple was dubious about these demands, says Abramovitch, but the office manager insisted this was the only way the state would officially recognize them as life partners. The couple obliged and Ninita returned to the Philippines to wait for Abramovitch's invitation. In the meantime, he returned to the office with all the relevant paperwork and began to file for Ninita to return as his partner. The couple had to wait three months before she was given another visa, he says, and in the end it was only a tourist visa valid for six months. "We are just waiting for the problems to start again when this visa runs out," Abramovitch says sadly. "I don't think Israel should open its borders to everyone, but I feel great with this woman and it should be enough that I want her to be my partner. People should be allowed to do what makes them happy." "Common law marriage is not a salvation, it's not a solution, it's just a different construction," says Rosenblum. "Everybody should have the right to establish a partnership or to register as a household and be recognized by the state. In turn, the state will be able to get everything it wants, including the chance to tax them as a family. The system is so complicated and does not accept all families, therefore the state does not enjoy all the benefits it could from these families." As an example, Rosenblum cites a gay family, which she calls "a wealthy family with both parents usually working," but one that is not recognized by the state and therefore the system gains nothing from it. "Every fourth child in Israel is from a 'different' family,'" she continues. "The mentality here has matured but the system has not changed. We need every slight change to fight bureaucracy. Society needs a system to help it survive, but the system here has become an obstacle to that society." Sabene Haddad, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's Population Registry, explains that while the ministry does take into consideration that not everyone is married, it takes time for the state to recognize non-formal partnerships. "It is easier to process a recognized marriage [either from here or abroad]," she says, adding that many new procedures have been adopted to deal with non-consensus couples. While many problems arise from stringent immigration laws, many of the barriers to change are also created by the Chief Rabbinate, which under the 1953 Rabbinical Courts Adjudication Law is responsible for matters of marriage and divorce for all Jewish citizens. Rabbinical courts look at family issues solely according to Halacha. Rosenblum recalls the incident that caused her to found New Family: "The case that really broke me was that of an Ethiopian immigrant who arrived at a battered women's shelter after she was almost killed by her husband. Nine months later, the couple appeared before a rabbinic court to get a divorce. Suddenly the husband yelled at her that she was not Jewish and she yelled back that he was not Jewish. At this point the court turned its focus from the divorce to the question of whether they were Jews, not dealing with the fact that he had tried to kill her. "Eventually it decided that neither was Jewish, and the Interior Ministry ordered them deported, disregarding the fact that if they were deported together he would surely kill her. The state had protected her for nine months and then it was going to let her be killed." Rosenblum turned to several organizations for help but none came forward. "It was at this point I understood the minute you fall out of the family consensus here, no one wants to help you." ROSENBLUM eventually managed to help the woman, gaining clemency from the Interior Ministry to allow her to stay and over the past six years has assisted many other non-consensus families in fighting the law, both secular and religious. However, some of the New Family's demands have drawn criticism from those who claim a growth in alternative families will change the Jewishness of the state. "As long as I have critics I know that I am right," says Rosenblum. "They are afraid of assimilation, but they do not understand that we are no longer living in the Diaspora. We are here, we have our own country and we have to believe in our own ability, otherwise the country will vanish. We have to give a push to society by boosting people's civil rights. What is happening now is causing people to run away because they believe they have no choice. "New Family and the Rabbinate are talking about the same thing. The idea of establishing a family to make life more bearable is a basic human belief. For some people, that family is with a partner, for others it is with a child, but for all these people all they want is warmth and love, nothing else. The minute a person has these things, he is productive and contributes to society. The system right now is trying to kill people's happiness just because it does not like the solution they chose." However, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who helps secular couples work through the Orthodox marriage system at the Zohar Foundation, disagrees that the country needs to reform traditional Jewish culture to accommodate a few alternative families. "There should be some changes: Single-parent families should get rights and should not be isolated," he says. "However, to convert completely from a traditional society to accommodate new families would be a disaster. The question is whether, because of a few couples, we should change our entire culture." He maintains that changes in the family structure in Europe and the US have been extremely damaging to children and to stability within society as a whole. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat echoes this, saying that traditional families provide a "critical building block for society." "Families are a laboratory for giving people space to grow as individuals and at the same time teach them how to work together as a team," he says, adding that many children of mixed marriages suffer from identity problems. "Religiously Israel cannot sanction interfaith or same-sex marriages; however any child who is a citizen of this country needs to be provided for and there is room for change," he continues. "I am not opposed to civil marriage and believe that it would not pose a problem." "We are gaining support and moving in the right direction to make changes to the system," observes Rosenblum, although the process is still very slow. "The Rabbinate has the support of the government and we are still the outsiders, but the people are open to change, especially in an age of global communication where everything is open. "Starting a family is a basic point of life, and with advances in biological technology changes in what constitutes a family cannot be ignored. Eventually, the family will be so far from the traditional consensus that the biological father, the sperm donor, the adoptive mother and the biological mother will all be standing together under the huppa. The new question will be who are the actual parents?"