The Israeli Foreign Ministry was hoping to promote a positive image of the country by posting a video flaunting its supposedly open and tolerant attitude toward marriage. It just forgot to mention that the “alternative” weddings it chose to highlight are often not recognized as legal in the country, and in some cases, can even land their participants in jail.
The video, which was posted on the ministry’s official Twitter page on Friday, drew dozens of angry and sarcastic responses, mainly from Israelis, who were clearly not the target audience considering that it was in English. Among those quick to point out the hypocrisy was even a former Israeli prime minister.
“There are many reasons to be proud of Israel. Freedom of marriage is not one of them,” wrote Ehud Barak, who retweeted the two-minute video. “It’s time that every couple can get married in Israel. Shabbat Shalom.”
Tomer Persico, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute who specializes in matters of religion and state, tweeted the following response to the Foreign Ministry: "As someone whose wedding the state of Israel did not recognize this pathetic attempt at Hasbara [public diplomacy] makes me cringe. Israel has outlawed Jewish weddings outside the Chief Rabbinate and recognizes only those performed by approved Orthodox rabbis, blatantly limiting freedom of religion.”
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Among the couples featured in the video were Anat and Hezi, who chose, like growing numbers of Israeli couples in recent years, not to get married through the Orthodox-run Rabbinate. Instead, they were married by a friend. As the video shows clearly, Hezi didn’t even wear a kippa on his head during the ceremony.
“It was really important for us that the ceremony be something more personal, something more fit to us,” he explained.
This approach was also embraced by Daniel and Nitzan, another couple featured in the video. “Do it your own style,” said Daniel. “Bring your own aspect to things.”
Just that doing things “your own style” is not allowed at Israeli weddings.
According to Israeli law, for a Jewish couple to be recognized as legally married, they must first register through and obtain approval from the Rabbinate. The rabbi conducting the ceremony must also be approved by the Rabbinate. The Rabbinate does not perform weddings between Jews and non-Jews or gay marriages. If one or both of the partners cannot provide documentation of their Jewish lineage, the Rabbinate will not approve the marriage either.
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So while there is a booming industry of “alternative weddings” in Israel – a euphemism in many cases for weddings performed outside the auspices of the Rabbinate – couples married in such ceremonies are not recognized as legally married unless they go and have a civil ceremony abroad and return to Israel with a foreign marriage certificate in their hands.
Couples wed by Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel, for example, would not be considered legally married. Neither would couples wed by unaffiliated wedding officiators or simply friends, as were Anat and Hezi.
But not all Orthodox rabbis are recognized by the Rabbinate either. Couples wed by such rabbis, even in a ceremony that adheres to the strictest religious rules, would not be recognized as married. In fact, Orthodox rabbis who perform such “halakhic” weddings (weddings consistent with Jewish law) outside the Rabbinate, as well as the couples married by them, are considered to be breaking the law and could face two years in prison if they are convicted. To date, this law has never been put to the test, but recent attempts to remove it from the books have failed.
For many years, Israeli couples that wanted to avoid the Rabbinate or did not qualify as marriageable under its strict criteria, would fly abroad to get married, with Cyprus the most popular destination. In recent years, however, growing numbers are choosing to hold their weddings among family and friends in Israel, knowing full well that they will not be recognized as married in the country.
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A study published in Haaretz earlier this month found that in 2017, at least 2,434 Jewish marriage ceremonies were held in Israel outside the Rabbinate’s authority – up 8 percent from the previous year. The study, conducted by Panim – an association of dozens of Israeli nonprofits dedicated to promoting Jewish pluralism in the country – also found that 150 such wedding were performed last year by Orthodox rabbis.
According to the study, most couples holding private wedding ceremonies in Israel – 55 percent – are secular Jews opposed to the institution of the Rabbinate on ideological grounds who could have been married through the Rabbinate had they chosen to.
Asked to explain what prompted the video, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said: “From time to time, we produce videos that aim to depict Israeli society in all its diversity, and in this context, we wanted to show all the alternative ways that Israelis are marrying.”
When asked if it was not unusual to be promoting through this video activities that are not considered legal in the country, he said, “We don’t go into all the nuances. And these aren’t necessarily recommendations. For example, paragliding is a dangerous sport. But just because we put out a video on paragliding in Israel doesn’t mean we are urging people to participate in something dangerous.”
Be Free Israel (aka Israel Hofsheet), an organization that supports greater religious pluralism in the country, actively promotes marriages outside the Rabbinate through publicity campaigns and other services it offers. Responding to the video, Executive Director Uri Keidar said, “It is very important to see that our government recognizes the importance of enabling Israelis to enjoy the freedom of marriage, but I'm not sure that a video that describes an alternative reality is the right thing to do.
“While thousands of Israelis from all different backgrounds take Judaism into their own hands and marry outside the Rabbinate, our government is not part of the solution at the moment, but rather part of the problem," he continued. "We would welcome any change to the current situation led by our political leaders, but as we see that the current coalition is not trying to create a more pluralistic Jewish sphere, we will continue this effort with the wind of the majority of Israelis in our backs.”