Utah marriage ruling isn't civil marriage in Israel, but it's progress - opinion

Civil marriage in Israel is still far off, but for now, the Utah marriage ruling gives couples who need civil marriage somewhere to turn to.

 FINANCE MINISTER Avigdor Liberman, as an opposition MK in 2020, conducts a civil marriage ceremony outside the Knesset.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
FINANCE MINISTER Avigdor Liberman, as an opposition MK in 2020, conducts a civil marriage ceremony outside the Knesset.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In a precedent-setting decision, the Lod District Court ruled earlier this month that civil marriages performed via Zoom under foreign auspices for couples in Israel will be inscribed in Israel’s Population Registry. If the ruling stands, it will have dramatic repercussions for thousands of couples. And because the issue lies at the heart of the religion and state conflict in Israel, it will undoubtedly feature prominently in the country’s upcoming elections.

Civil marriage is still a major bone of contention in religion-state relations in Israel. Even after 75 years of statehood, marriages are still performed solely in accordance with Jewish law, or the traditions of other faiths. This deprives those who cannot get married in a religious framework – because they are psulei chitun (disqualified for marriage under Jewish law), same-sex couples, or do not wish to marry in such a framework – of the right of matrimony in Israel.

Up until now, such couples have been forced to fly to another country, marry there, and then, upon their return to Israel, register as married couples in the Population Registry.

The Lod District Court ruling changes things significantly, as it permits foreign-conducted online marriage ceremonies without ever having to step off of Israeli soil. Although the ruling does not actually create a path to civil marriage in Israel, it does resolve the practical difficulty of getting married here in a civil ceremony. The court’s arguments are rooted in technical-administrative grounds pertaining to the Population Registry’s authority to determine where couples were married. But the court well understood the context.

Among its arguments, it enumerates the right to equality from which the right of all couples to marry derives, without passing through Ben-Gurion Airport. By the way, this is not the first time this possibility has arisen. At the end of December 2020 in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the population registrar also agreed to register “Zoom marriages,” but Arye Deri, who then served as interior minister, immediately nullified the practice.

 A WEDDING canopy is seen against the backdrop scenery of the Mediterranean Sea. (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90) A WEDDING canopy is seen against the backdrop scenery of the Mediterranean Sea. (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

In broad terms, enacting such a policy on a permanent basis could prove highly beneficial to both religious-conservatives and liberals. On the religious-conservative side, the decision does not dramatically change the status quo in the ideological sense.

True, it makes it easier to marry outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, but most Israeli couples who opt for a civil Zoom marriage would bypass the rabbinate in any case. On the other hand, the decision lets much of the air out of the struggle to institute civil marriage under the official auspices of the state, without paying the ideological price of recognizing them.

For the liberal side

On the liberal side, the ruling far from satisfies the demand for recognition of civil marriage in Israel, in all its declarative and ideological aspects. But de facto civil marriage on Israeli soil is an immediate and feasible solution for tens of thousands of couples who cannot or do not wish to marry via the Rabbinate without having to leave the country. Although the decision does not change the procedure such couples would have to face in the event of divorce – they will still need to appear at a rabbinical court – it is still good news for those who choose civil marriage.

We should not delude ourselves that the ruling will be cause for celebration in any quarter. In Israel’s perpetual “war of all against all,” especially during an election season, practical decisions that lower the heat are seldom desired by the hawkish parties. It is easy to see how this issue will become yet another banner raised in Israel’s Jewish wars; instead of rallying around a practical solution that benefits everyone, Israelis will continue their “trench warfare,” until and beyond Election Day.

The writer is vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.