Marital rights

The time will come when Israel's political leadership will be forced to reform the anachronistic millet system.

A man proposing marriage in front of the Western Wall at the end of an Israel ScaVentures scavenger hunt. (photo credit: COURTESY ISRAEL SCAVENTURES)
A man proposing marriage in front of the Western Wall at the end of an Israel ScaVentures scavenger hunt.
This week, during a meeting of the People, Religion and State Knesset lobby, it emerged that hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are unable to exercise a basic human right – the right to marry.
Though this right is understood to be fundamental in such foundational texts as the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Right and the US Constitution, in the Jewish state the situation is a bit more complicated.
Via the British Mandate, Israel inherited the millet system from Ottoman rule, which empowers only recognized religions – Christian, Muslim and Jewish – to perform marriages and divorces. The very concept of a civil marriage is completely foreign to the millet system. Indeed, the very notion of a nation-state empowered to perform roles previously left to religious institutions did not exist in the Ottoman Empire.
This setup worked fairly well a century ago when individuals’ identities tended to be aligned with their professed religion and societies in the region were traditional. But this anachronistic system has become increasingly unworkable as marriage has become a personal choice – indeed a basic human right – not a custom designed to maintain continuity and social cohesion.
According to figures presented to the Knesset lobby by Hiddush, a religious pluralism lobbying group, there are about 660,000 Israeli citizens who are unable to marry inside Israel. This number is made up of about 364,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union classified as “without religion.”
These are people who were eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return because, for instance, they have a paternal grandparent who is Jewish, but they cannot marry in Israel because they are not considered Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish standards as applied by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. And since they have not embraced Christianity or Islam, no authorized institution can marry them here.
Another group that is unable to marry in Israel despite having Israeli citizenship is made up of people who underwent non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism. These converts number about 13,000. There are also mamzerim, or people born as the result of an illicit sexual relationship, such as a woman who became pregnant from an extra-marital affair. They are included in a group of 5,000 Israeli citizens who are prohibited from marrying for various reasons.
Males who are kohanim – members of the priestly class – are prohibited from marrying converts or divorcees. It is estimated that there are about 80,000 kohanim.
There are many vested interests in the millet system. The Orthodox establishment wields much power thanks to its monopoly over marriages and divorces. A number of religious political parties – Bayit Yehudi, Shas, United Torah Judaism – actively work to keep the status quo.
But the real reason marriages and divorces continue to be controlled by the Chief Rabbinate is because a large percentage of Israelis are convinced that the only way to maintain “Jewish unity” is by ensuring that as many Israelis as possible will be able to marry one another.
Introducing civil marriages, in contrast, would fragment the Jewish people. Jews fight so hard to prevent intermarriage in the Diaspora. How could a Jewish state, whose very raison d’etre is, among other things, to ensure Jewish continuity, actively permit assimilation? This is not say that all Israelis like the status quo. A poll conducted by the Smith Institute for Hiddush found that 64 percent of Jewish Israelis support civil marriage.
But the critical political mass needed to bring about change has not built up in part because those who are unable to marry in Israel can simply go abroad to Cyprus relatively cheaply. There simply are not thousands of people stuck with no option pounding on the Knesset’s doors for change.
Nevertheless, the time will come when Israel’s political leadership will be forced to reform the anachronistic millet system. A good first step, before instituting civil marriages, should be to allow a broad spectrum of Orthodox rabbis to perform marriages along with the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism as long as all streams uphold the principle of matrilineality – the idea that Judaism is determined by the mother.
Israel is the only Jewish state in the world. This fact should be reflected in our laws. But we must also acknowledge that neither the millet system nor the Chief Rabbinate are capable of answering the needs of a modern Jewish state.