Recently, Emily Crasnick described in an op-ed how she and her Israeli husband had to travel to Maine in order to marry. It brings the issue of marriage freedom in Israel home to American Jewry. Emily, a new immigrant from the US, is a victim of Israeli governments’ cynical ongoing political surrender to the dictates of the religious parties. She, like the majority of children growing up in the Jewish community in America today, is ineligible to get married legally in Israel because Israel’s politicians have surrendered the monopoly over Jewish marriages in Israel to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate; and no alternative civil or non-Orthodox marriages are allowed.
While the good news is that most Israelis share American Jews’ commitment to pluralism and religious freedom in general, and to marriage freedom in particular, the necessary change has not yet taken place. The first step, though, can occur as soon as Friday.
Recently, Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana expressed his support for this limited change in an interview on Channel 11. Why should thousands of Israeli couples have to leave the country to get married in Cyprus – and not be able to marry at its embassy in Tel Aviv? His reference to this channel as a way of promoting the right to a marriage alternative outside the auspices of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate followed a positive, principled position, which he recently expressed: “I am convinced that in the State of Israel, people should be able to realize their status as couples, even if they do not want to do so through the Chief Rabbinate.” Other coalition parties, like Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor and Meretz have repeatedly declared their support for the introduction of civil marriage in Israel.
The moment of truth is now. The question is: how serious are Kahana, Lapid, et al, about allowing Israelis to marry whomever and however they want, rather than being forced to marry only via the Chief Rabbinate? Or worse: not being able to marry at all due to halachic restrictions, which Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical establishment applies?
This can be done immediately without legislation. It is clear to us, unfortunately, that legislating the introduction of civil marriage in Israel is a goal that will not be realized soon in light of the coalition agreements and the government guidelines, which require that new legislation on religion-state issues can only be passed with the consent of all parties that are members of the coalition.
However, it is possible to advance this goal and make it easier for the many couples who cannot marry in Israel. According to Hiddush – For Freedom of Religion and Equality, more than 600,000 Israeli citizens cannot marry in their country due to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly. This includes Cohanim and divorcees, immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Halacha or cannot prove their Jewish status, LGBTQ individuals, converts, mamzerim (one born out of an illegitimate relationship) and many more. To this must be added the thousands of couples going abroad to get married for conscientious reasons.
Minister Kahana’s proposal cannot be implemented literally, as Cyprus does not allow marriage at its embassies. However, there are other embassies that would do so, if only the Israeli government would cancel its demand that they refrain from allowing couples to marry through them. (This demand was issued in 1995 by then-foreign minister Ehud Barak under pressure from the religious parties and it remains in force to this day.) Last year, the Foreign Ministry informed the Knesset Interior Committee that its review revealed that the Norwegian Embassy, for example, would be willing to marry Israeli couples if the Israeli government were to permit it.
In 2000, I participated in a committee session on the subject in the Knesset, in which I presented the development of the issue of consular marriage in Israel. Even then, representatives of some consulates announced that they would be willing to provide marriage services to Israelis, if only the Israeli government would permit it.
The readily attainable next step, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Kahana, is simple: Lapid will rescind the demand of his predecessor from 26 years ago. Thereby, he will also do an important service for the advancement of individual liberties, human dignity, freedom of religion and the principle of equality in Israel.
The ministers and their colleagues who support freedom of marriage in Israel are greatly appreciated, but they must understand that the road to the desirable legislative solution for marriage freedom is still a long way off. So, in addition to allowing consular marriages, they should persuade the interior minister to revoke the order to the Population Authority to refuse to register Israeli couples marrying online via Utah County in the US.
Utah County has pioneered an online marriage platform for its residents and people around the world. This platform offers a legal, accessible, inexpensive and fast civil marriage. Hundreds of Israeli couples have already married through this route, but their marriage registrations were blocked by the previous interior minister, Shas head Arye Deri; and current Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and the State Attorney’s Office continue to answer “amen” to Deri’s illegal order to the Population Authority aimed at protecting the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate and making it difficult for Israeli couples to realize alternative channels for marriage.
Hiddush has submitted two court petitions on the subject, on behalf of couples married via Utah County and two Utah Reform rabbis who have officiated such weddings for Israelis; but, as we know, the wheels of justice turn slowly. It is up to you to demand the removal of this arbitrary and coercive barrier right now. Save the courts, us and the couples the time and hearings required to reach a judicial decision on the matter. If you do so, you will be facilitating an additional path, without need for legislation, for many Israeli couples denied the right to marry or that are seeking to realize their civil right to marry in a manner befitting their values and beliefs.
Israel’s Jewish public unequivocally supports freedom of marriage as well as the introduction of civil marriage in Israel, as the many surveys commissioned by Hiddush on this subject have clearly demonstrated. The majority is particularly large among voters for the coalition parties. A real, long-term solution is needed, which will not require Israeli citizens to exercise their right to get married through international bypasses. However, until the Knesset legislates a civil marriage alternative as a parallel and equal channel to religious marriage in Israel, you can open a gate for civil marriage in Israel today – if you are truly serious about your statements and are willing to put them into practice.
The writer heads Hiddush – For Religious Freedom and Equality, a non-partisan, trans denominational Israel-Diaspora partnership.