Same love – different laws

Three couples weigh in on the benefits of civil union.

Aj Hughes (left) and Juan Rubio decided on a domestic partnership so that AJ could work in this country (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aj Hughes (left) and Juan Rubio decided on a domestic partnership so that AJ could work in this country
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Anthony James “AJ” Hughes needed a legal way to work, says Juan Rubio of Tel Aviv, “and when we went to get a work visa, the woman handed us a paper for a domestic partnership instead,” recounting how he ended up signing a union agreement with his partner. Getting a work visa would be incredibly difficult and expensive, so a domestic partnership seemed the only answer for the couple.
“We sat on it for a couple months, and then we went back to the Interior Ministry. AJ submitted the application after we got the information. We were here, we knew things would be difficult because were here, but we made it work,” says Rubio.
While it is not legal to have a same-sex marriage on Israeli soil, civil unions or domestic partnerships are permitted and same-sex marriages are recognized if performed in other countries. A popular wedding destination for those who wish to have a secular marriage is Cyprus.
More than half of Israeli overseas marriages are celebrated in Cyprus.
“Forty-six percent of the couples who married overseas included at least one spouse designated as ‘other’ – a person not classified by religion. These couples cannot marry in Israel and marriage overseas was therefore necessary for registration of their marital status,” according to a Law Library of Congress document, “Israel: Spousal Agreements for Couples Not Belonging to Any Religion – A Civil Marriage Option?” While not as sandy or warm as Cyprus, Toronto served that purpose for Russell Lord and Avi Ozeri more than a decade ago, because it had already legalized gay marriage. Lord and Ozeri paved the way for same-sex couples to receive couple status from the Israeli government on their ID cards. Before them, same-sex couples could not be granted couple status on any documents.
“In 2005, same-sex marriages were carried out in only a few countries. One of the few countries where same-sex couples could get married was Canada. Avi thought it would be a great idea to go together as a group and get married and come back here and get it recognized,” Lord recalls.
Their wedding was shared with five other couples in a similar situation on March 11, 2005, in Toronto. It was witnessed by an Israeli notary and recorded on the official page of the Israeli embassy to make it recognized in Israel as well.
Five years later, on March 15, 2010, the Knesset passed the Law on Spousal Agreements for Persons without a Religion, authorizing the registration of spousal agreements and the appointment of a registrar for this purpose.
Such a civil marriage option was ideal in the case of Tahel and Ran Ilan-Ber.
“For me it was always what I wanted, I never thought I’d have Jewish marriage, mainly due to women’s rights issues. The rabbinical court is male oriented, men oversee the ceremony, a ketuba [Jewish marriage contract] is essentially a slavery bill for women, and so for me it was never an option. My partner comes from a secular family so it wasn’t a big deal for us,” says Tahel.
“They give you a list of 18 items to prove that you’re in a relationship. Part of that is pictures of the two of you together, text messages, emails, phone calls, records of all of these things as far back as you can get. They ask for large purchases that you’ve made together and their receipts. They ask for your house agreements with both your names on it, flights that you’ve taken together. They needed things from the US, and that was the hard part. You really have to prove it,” explains Rubio.
It was a little more straightforward for the Ilan-Bers, when they celebrated a civil union last year.
“My partner Ran and I got to the offices and had our civil union legalized, just the two of us, and we went to a restaurant and had a family dinner with everybody, and that was kind of the celebration. The fact that I didn’t do what everyone else did, that it went along with my own ideals – that made it special to me,” says Ilan-Ber.
While domestic partnerships are certainly legal for a same-sex couple, getting married is a different story.
“My partner and I went back to Israel to get our ID cards changed to spouse status, and to my surprise, they wouldn’t let us,” says Lord.
“Then we learned that there were already two couples that were going to sue the government about that. Naturally, we decided to join them.”
“There were all seven judges on the bench. We wanted to get couple status, we wanted to be exactly equal to a straight marriage, and we wanted recognition. They heard our case and they passed the judgment in our favor. Six judges voted in favor of us, and one judge voted against.”
The seventh judge told them: “Call it anything you like, union, partnership, but because of my religious leanings, I can’t call it marriage because marriage is holy.”
The couple won their case despite that, although it took a few weeks to get it on their ID cards because the Israeli registrar had to change the whole computer system to add two spouses who were both male.
“My ID card is the first one in Israel that has my same-sex partner’s name and my name on it. We made history,” says Lord.
The US government document “Israel: Spousal Agreements for Couples Not Belonging to Any Religion – A Civil Marriage Option?” states, “Although not recognized as legally married or as cohabiting spouses… gay partnerships have been viewed as creating entitlements in specific cases. For example, in a 1994 case the Supreme Court accepted a petition by a gay employee of El Al, Israel’s national airline, to grant his gay partner free flight tickets. The Court recognized that depriving gay partners of the benefit that is awarded to heterosexual employees violated their right to equal opportunity at work.”
There are some differences in benefits and rights compared to halachic marriages in Israel. For example, in the case of a civil union, they are identified as single on their ID cards, which leads to important distinctions, including child custody and property division.
“For example, if I have a baby, it’s not automatically my partner’s child as well. It has to be proven with DNA. In a married couple’s situation, it would be assumed that the baby is biologically the husband’s,” Ilan-Ber explains.
Since the only kind of marriage fully recognized in this country is religious – excluding both secular ceremonies and civil weddings – this conflicts with the attitudes of some members of Israel’s secular majority, who feel they are forced to marry or divorce in a religious ceremony.
“The State of Israel should allow more [options] than just civil union or marriage. It shouldn’t have to be under the Orthodox rabbinate. Why did we go all the way to Toronto just to get married? We’re all involved in Israeli society, we’re Israeli, we’re honestly part of Israel. So why can’t I get married here? That goes the same for straight people here. So many new immigrants without paperwork to show they are Jewish can’t be married [here]. There has to be liberal marriage for those who want it, and religious marriage for the others who want that,” says Lord.
Rubio offers a different perspective, explaining that clearly Israel is a Jewish state.
“In that sense, its not like America, we don’t have separation of church and state here. It’s interwoven, the government has a part to play, and I understand if they want to keep it Jewish. It’s not fair to Jews who don’t practice Orthodox Judaism, but at the same time I can see where the government is coming from.”
For Ilan-Ber it’s not just about marriages.
The underlying issue “is that there needs to be more of a separation of church and state. The government needs to totally separate from the religious institution, that’s the real problem. The ID card should not be related to the religious institution.”
“The reason we really did it is because – now when I see two young people a couple, two women or two men, walking together, I know that our lawsuit helped make that possible,” Lord explains.
“It’s a moral thing for them to register that they are married, and I know I did my good deed in this world. With that said, we have a long way to go. There’s no secular marriage in Israel. Jewish and Christian, gay, or lesbian, that’s way overdue,” he says.
Ilan-Ber highlights that the process of her civil union “made me feel equal.”
She explains that “the whole thing felt a lot less imposed by society. I’ve been going to friend’s weddings for 10 years, and even though it’s a special day for the couple, no one understands the words of the text, and if they’re not religious, they don’t connect with it all or understand the meaning. It just felt more ‘right’ for me.”