A Jewish wedding
A Jewish wedding held in Israel in 2010. Photo by Alex Levac
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The Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday approved legislation that would raise the minimum age for marriage in Israel under most circumstances from 17 to 18, with some Knesset sources expressing doubts about the capacity of the police to enforce a change in the law, in part because of the exceptions that will be allowed.

Draft legislation relating to this issue had been stalled since 2004, primarily due to opposition from the ultra-Orthodox community. On Tuesday, the Knesset is scheduled to vote on and pass this and another bill concerning the issue of marriage, since it has received the coalition's backing.

Under the new bill, the courts will be empowered to recognize marriages of couples under 18, in cases where religious traditions or special social norms of minority groups are involved. Furthermore, the courts would be allowed to recognize marriages between children under the age of 18 of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic rabbis, and in cases of pregnancy out of wedlock.

It has been suggested that raising the marriage age will only expand the number of illegal marriages.

"Marriage by juveniles does not permit them to get a higher education, hurts the potential social mobility of the boys and perpetuates the intergenerational cycle of poverty," said Deputy Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud ), who initiated one of the bills, which was proposed by MK Yariv Levin (Likud ). "A law raising the marriage age will enable juveniles to exercise their rights under the free education law in full."

The Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women's Status at Bar-Ilan University has recently published data showing that more than 4,500 people a year under the age of 18 married in Israel. The center's director, Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, said the law setting the marital age at 17 was legislated more than 60 years ago and fails to reflect social changes. Ironically, the average age at which Israelis, including ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Muslims are tying the knot is on the rise. Nonetheless, there are conservative segments of society where marriages at younger ages are common. The phenomenon is particularly widespread in the Bedouin and ultra-Orthodox Hasidic communities.

MK Hanin Zuabi, who sponsored the other bill in question, has emphasized its implications vis-a-vis Israeli Arabs. In this population, about 3,000 people under the age 18 get married every year, she noted. This prevents young women from making intelligent choices about their future in general, and their spouses, because it is usually the family that chooses the husband for the young woman, Zuabi said. Fully 82 percent of girls under 17 who marry in Israel are Arab, according to data from women's organizations.

In some instances, under the current law, underage marriages are carried out privately without any involvement by government authorities. Nonetheless, after the fact, couples can get a rabbinical or Muslim religious court ruling certifying that their marriage was performed in accordance with religious law, and their union will be legally recognized by the Interior Ministry.

Few people seek such recognition, the Religious Services Ministry said, and virtually no complaints are filed with the police against those who perform the underage marriages. In light of the fact that conservative religious groups have been giving a stamp of approval to underage marriages for years to couples who are even under the current minimum age of 17, increasing that age to 18 will likely result in more illegal marriages, Religious Services Ministry sources said.

In addition to the rabbinate, there are five official rabbinical organizations that are authorized to issue marriage certificates. Four of them are ultra-Orthodox and the fifth, Tzohar, is an organization of more liberal, national religious rabbis. Sources at the Religious Services Ministry said a computerized system that will be up and running in the coming year to prevent the issuance of any marriage certificates by rabbinical authorities which are in violation of the law. These sources acknowledge, however, that underage marriages might still be performed, following which the couples will wait until they are 18 to register their unions.

MK Yariv Levin's bill allows courts to approve of marriages of people under 18 under "special circumstances." So if the legislation passes in its current form, prospective spouses under that age could seek a court order approving their marriages.