The fact that the laws governing personal status in Israel are religious ones is a stain on our law books. Personal status laws discriminate between men and women. They also impair the basic rights of citizens to establish a family at all, as in the case of a mamzer (a bastard, as defined by religious law) - or a family as they see fit, in the case of a cohen, a descendent of the priestly line, and a divorced woman. Norms are forced on us that are impossible to explain in a democratic society: for example, halitza, the ritual that involves a widow's release from the obligation to marry her deceased husband's closest relative, or the laws relating to a "rebellious" woman. The fact that no possibility of civil marriage recognized by the state exists in Israel and that people must marry abroad to undergo such a ceremony, must be corrected.
Over the past 56 years, numerous attempts were made to change this evil decree. All the civil marriage bills brought before the Knesset were voted down by large majorities, and all attempts failed to allow such unions for those "unable" to marry according to religious law.
There has been a steep decline in the number of Jews interested in Orthodox marriage ceremonies: Because Conservative, Reform and civil marriage is not recognized, the number of couples marrying in Israel in the 21st century is the same as it was in the 1970s, although the population has doubled. Fewer couples are marrying; many merely sign contracts, others marry in alternative, not recognized ways.
An interesting change has taken place in recent years in religious circles. If in the past any mention of non-Orthodox marriage would have had them threatening a "split in the nation," today they understand that they have lost the battle, and that couples in the secular majority have found a way to lead their lives together without rabbinic sanction. Many religious leaders have come to understand that they are contributing to harming the Jewish home when they seek to prevent any non-Orthodox formalization of the marital union.
The term "civil marriage" inexplicably deters most MKs, and the possibility of passing a law favoring it, meanwhile, is slim. And so when I was justice minister and religious affairs minister, I proposed a common-law union bill. The bill stated that a registrar of unions would be appointed in the Justice Ministry. Their unions officially recognized, such couples would enjoy all the rights granted to those that the state acknowledged as married. The bill resembled many laws on the books since the 1990s in the U.S. and in Europe - it differentiates between those who are "married" according to religious law and those who have become "partners." This differentiation made it possible for some rabbis to agree to the formulization of the law, since it did not involve "real" marriage, and therefore there would be no need for divorce. Separation would come when both partners gave notice, or via a Family Court ruling. The Knesset term ended before the bill could be brought for a vote.
Shinui entered Ariel Sharon's government loudly, with the banner of civil marriage hoisted high. But it quickly understood that it had no majority for it, and returned to the proposal collecting dust in the Justice Ministry. The coalition's committee on the common-law union bill, headed by MK Roni Bar-On (Likud) even renovated my proposal by suggesting that the status of marriage would not exist at all, and that all Israelis would become "partners" either through a religious ceremony or common-law registration.
Ostensibly, a window of optimism had been opened. But Bar-On's resignation from the committee chairmanship, in protest over the fact that Justice Minister Yosef Lapid had presented details from the committee's recommendations to the cabinet, is a sign that this important issue may fall prey to political disputes and narrow interests.
Meretz-Yahad will not make petty political calculations, and will wholeheartedly support the proposal of the Bar-On committee if it reaches the Knesset. The fact that only a few weeks ago, Shinui opposed MK Haim Oron's common-law union bill will not lead us to oppose this important proposal.
But this will be Shinui's big test. If after a year and a half as part of Sharon's failed government - and after the party did not manage to budge the yeshiva boys or make progress on any other significant issue involving religion and state - it does not manage to pass the common-law union bill either, it will not be able to explain to anyone what it it is doing there together with Avigdor Lieberman, Effi Eitam and Uzi Landau.