The Israeli government's ploy to prevent marriages through consulates

This is not just an issue that concerns Israelis, for it also concerns Diaspora Jewry.

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)
Every day of the year, thousands of immigrants, converts, LGBTQ couples, Cohanim, divorcees and many others encounter a barrier in Israel when they want to get married. The laws of the State of Israel have entrusted the Chief Rabbinate with the authority to determine which Jews are allowed to marry and what their marriage ceremonies will look like. This leaves hundreds of thousands of Israelis unable to marry in Israel at all because the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize them as Jews, or – even if it recognizes their Jewish status – it decrees that, according to religious Jewish law, they are not allowed to marry and therefore cannot legally marry at all in Israel.
This week, the Knesset Interior Committee deliberated on this vexing issue. The coronavirus pandemic forced this debate because during this period, such couples have been deprived of even the alternative of marrying civilly abroad. The discussion focused on examining the possibility of an emergency solution – consular marriage, which is a form of civil marriage taking place at the consulate of a foreign state that permits such according to its laws. These marriages are then registered in Israel’s Population Registry. While US consulates do not offer this service, as there is no federal marriage law, a number of other countries do, such as Russia, which would have offered a civil marriage option for Israeli couples who also hold Russian citizenship if only Israel allowed it. In this way, a good number of Russian olim could have resolved their inability to marry in Israel. Interestingly, the Committee was informed that the Norwegian Embassy was willing to marry Israeli couples in their local consulate – if Israel would give it the green light.
The information presented to the committee was partial, and, to a large extent, misleading. It was clear that the state authorities had no real desire to provide a solution to the many Israeli couples who cannot or do not want to marry via the Chief Rabbinate. They explained that consular marriage raises legal difficulties; therefore, recognition thereof is contrary to public policy and government policy. They informed the committee that although in 1994 the Supreme Court ruled that the Interior Ministry should register such marriages, it left the question of their substantive validity open to this day. Therefore, the prime minister decided to order the then-foreign minister, Ehud Barak, to issue an official diplomatic letter to all foreign consuls, “asking” them to stop marrying Israeli citizens.
The truth is different. Then, and even now, the government has no sincere concern for preventing legal faults and ambiguities. Rather, it is surrendering to the blackmail of the religious parties. The letter was a ploy to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling and prevent the legal outlet of consular marriage, issued in response to the pressure of the religious parties, which pull the ministers’ puppet strings. This is what’s behind the present position presented to the committee by the official representatives, who ignore the serious violation of human and civil rights involved and make belief that this option, anchored in Israeli law since the British Mandate, as the Supreme Court ruled back in ‘94, constitutes such a complex legal problem, which – even 25 years later – they have not yet been able to find a solution for.
For me, the Knesset discussion was like déjà vu. As a lawyer, I represented the petitioner in the 1994 Supreme Court case, which we won. Then too, the state argued that legal doubts and public interest required that the petition be rejected, but the court ruled in our favor, deciding that should legalistic doubts as to the intrinsic validity of consular marriages may be raised, that should not block their official registration in Israel, constituting a de facto recognition of their validity. In 2000, after Natan Sharansky became interior minister, I participated in the deliberations of the Knesset Absorption Committee together with Sharansky, foreign consuls and many others. Unlike the current Interior Minister, Shas leader Rabbi [Arye] Deri, who wishes to prevent Israelis from marrying as they wish, Sharansky saw consular marriage as a practical solution to the plight of immigrants. The committee chairwoman and Sharansky supported the revocation of the foreign minister’s letter. Sharansky presented a legal opinion of a leading family law expert, who asserted that there is no legal obstacle to recognizing consular marriages.

Nevertheless, this was to no avail. The ultra-Orthodox and Zionist Orthodox Knesset members who participated in the debate made it clear that they would not tolerate any breach of the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage in Israel. Some of the foreign consuls have made it clear that they would not hesitate to provide this service, within the limits of the laws of their countries, if only the State of Israel would agree to it. Representatives of Israel’s Foreign Affairs and Justice ministries, like their counterparts in this week’s hearing, voiced similar excuses. I spoke of the artificiality of the argument, in light of the fact that the same ambiguity exists with regard to the civil marriages of Israelis in foreign countries. Still, the state – unable to prevent this – has respected the Supreme Court ruling ordering the state to register couples married abroad since the ‘60s, despite the state’s objections, claiming doubt as to their substantive validity. Since then, thousands of civil marriages from abroad have been registered.
I would certainly welcome the opening of another narrow window to marriage in the form of removing the barrier to recognizing consular marriages. However, the real solution is, of course, for Israel to join the rest of the world’s Western democracies, which all recognize the right of their citizens to marry as they wish.
According to Hiddush’s 2020 Israel Religion & State Index, there has been a marked increase in the Israeli public’s support for allowing freedom of choice in marriage. Among the adult Jewish public it stands at 65% and among the secular Israeli public at 89%. The majority of traditional Jewish Israelis also support freedom of choice in marriage, as do voters for all of the civil parties, including the Likud. The only reason Israel is the sole Western democracy in the world, which does not allow its citizens the right to marry is, as stated, the political blackmail of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which undermines Israeli democracy and violates the civil rights of the entire population.
This is not just an issue that concerns Israelis, for it also concerns Diaspora Jewry. Most of the children growing up today, for example, in the Jewish community of the United States will not be able to legally marry in Israel, should they choose to live here, for the Chief Rabbinate will not recognize their Jewish status. The majority of the Jewish public in Israel wants to see world Jewry actively engage in this critical battle. It is high time to demand the full implementation of Israel’s Declaration of Independence’s promise that we are to be a “free people in our country” and its promise to make freedom of religion and conscience for all the law of this land.
The writer heads Hiddush – for Religious Freedom and Equality.