Rights Activist: Israeli Government Should Finance Couples Forced to Wed Abroad

Cyprus is out as a wedding destination and alternative ceremonies are in.

The state should finance overseas weddings for couples who are not allowed to marry in Israel, civil rights activists have told the Trajtenberg committee, the government-appointed panel for socioeconomic change.

“Some 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not recognized as Jews according to the halakha and are denied the right to marry in Israel,” says Alex Tentzer, an activist for civil marriages in the Russian-speaking community.

wedding - Daniel Tchetchik - August 30 2011
Daniel Tchetchik

“These people, who are classified as having ‘no religion’ by the Israeli establishment, are forced to travel abroad and have a civil marriage. Financing this procedure is a matter of social justice, hence we went to the Trajtenberg committee,” he says.

“Until there’s a law in Israel stipulating that everyone can get married here, the trip abroad must be financed by the state. If the state denies people their civil rights, it must pay up,” he says.

Out of 5,028 couples who married abroad in 2008, 1,277 of the grooms and 1,347 of the brides were registered in Israel as having “no religion,” says Tentzer.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have travelled to Cyprus and other countries to wed over the past few decades, because they wouldn’t or couldn’t be married in Israel. However, the numbers of people going overseas to marry has been dropping steadily in recent years, a Central Bureau of Statistics report says.

In 2008, a total of 5,028 Israeli couples who wed in other countries, including Cyprus, registered with the Interior Ministry as married, compared to 5,705 couples who did so in 2007 − a drop of 11 percent − and the 6,987 couples who did so in 2004, a drop of 28 percent, bureau figures show.

Officials assume fewer Israelis are opting to marry abroad because of the legal alternatives to marriage that have been made available in recent years. In addition, many couples prefer not to impose an official arrangement on their partnership, even when they decide to start a family.

More than 50,000 couples marry in traditional Orthodox Jewish religious ceremonies every year. However, since Jews in Israel can only be married in a ceremony approved by the rabbinate and officiated by an Orthodox rabbi, many Israelis are forced to marry abroad.

These include people who are not Jewish according to the halakha, immigrants classified as having “no religion,” and those who are prohibited from marrying each other according to halakha, such as divorced women and Cohens ‏(members of the priestly class‏).

Another group of Israelis choose to marry abroad for personal or ideological reasons, such as not wanting the the rabbinate to be involved in their marriage.

The CBS report pertains to Israeli couples who marry abroad, in which one of the partners is an Israeli citizen. The data is based on the details of the couples who registered their new status with the Population Registrar, although not all couples choose to do so.

The destinations Israelis have been picking for their nuptials have also been changing. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have become popular wedding sites in the past decade. In 2008 1,324 Israelis married there, a little less than in Cyprus ‏(1,361‏), while 790 couples were wed in the former Soviet states.

Attorney Irit Rosenblum, a human rights activist and founder and executive director of the New Family organization, says many Israelis who have a right to marry in Israel avoid doing so and choose to draw up a civil marriage contract, without a marriage ceremony.

“Many Israelis realize that marrying abroad doesn’t exempt them from [dealing with] the religious establishment, because if some day they’ll want to separate they will still have to undergo a divorce through the rabbinate,” she says.

Some 4,000 couples have made legally binding civil marriage contracts in the past year, without having to register with the Interior Ministry, she says.

Rosenblum says massive legislation has been enacted in recent years, especially in Western Europe, to recognize common-law couples. In Israel too some 20 laws have been enacted, recognizing directly or indirectly couples’ status as “common law” spouses.

“I can offer couples the ultimate solution − contract marriage or a partnership certificate,” says Rosenblum, director of New Family, an NGO that provides legal solutions to Israelis who wish to form common-law marriages or families.

“This is a couple’s declaration that they are running a household together. They take all the responsibility on themselves and the moment they make the declaration they are entitled to all National Insurance rights, a mortgage and even the recognition of the Tel Aviv municipality’s parking department,” says Rosenblum.