Getting married at City Hall may be a hallowed tradition in the United States and other countries. But tossing confetti on the municipal steps after a clerk declares them legally wed is still a pipedream in Israel, where marriage for Jewish couples is tightly controlled by the state’s rabbinical authorities.
That’s why this week’s move by Tel Aviv to recognize civil partnerships, in honor of Pride Month, is being viewed by religious pluralism activists as a rebellious breakthrough. It is another milestone, they say, in efforts by towns and cities to tackle issues that are hot potatoes in the national halls of power in Jerusalem, stymied by the limitations of coalition politics.
Sunday’s decision by Tel Aviv City Council, led by Mayor Ron Huldai, means that couples who formally declare that they’re living together can officially enter their names in a municipal “couples registry.” This will give them all the rights and financial benefits of a married couple within the city.
Huldai openly declared that the move was a “challenge” to the national government, since it will give formal status to LGBTQ families, as well as interfaith couples and others who can’t or don’t want to have a religious wedding under the auspices of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.
The couples registry announcement follows another local rebellion that unfolded last November: the highly successful unveiling of a new, extensive public transportation system on Shabbat, with shuttles traveling through Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Givatayim, Ramat Hasharon and Kiryat Ono. While there have been private initiatives at providing transportation on the Jewish Sabbath before, this was the most comprehensive – and the first initiated and officially sanctioned by local leaders.
These two moves reflect an increasing boldness on the local level to buck the limitations of the national government on issues of religion and state, stepping into the gap between changing attitudes in Israeli society and the limitations of its national government.
Whether politically right, left or center, governing coalitions have repeatedly been too reliant on support from ultra-Orthodox parties to take steps forward on issues like gay marriage and public transportation on Shabbat.
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The contrast between national and municipal politics was on display last week when a bill put before the Knesset that would legalize public transportation on Shabbat, introduced by the left-wing Meretz Party, went down in defeat.
Lawmakers voting against it included members of Kahol Lavan, a party that explicitly supported such a measure while campaigning, but changed its tune once it joined the ruling coalition – despite the fact that polls showed that 95 percent of its own voters were in favor of Shabbat transportation.
“It’s an absurdity that the national coalitions continue to sanctify the status quo when the status quo is no longer viable for a significant percentage of the Israeli body politic,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director of ITIM, an organization dedicated to “improving government policies that impede access” to “fundamental Jewish life passages.”
The new activism within municipal governments, Farber said, “highlights the fact that the national government is not respectful and responsive to the needs of Israelis or providing solutions.”
Bowing to national dictates
Historically in Israel, local municipalities have not been particularly free to buck the demands of a strong central authority, said Rabbi Uri Regev, president and CEO of Hiddush, a religious freedom advocacy group. Israel’s “top down” political dynamic dates back to the British Mandate when the occupying power wanted cities and towns to bend to their will, creating a structure that emphasized local dependence – particularly in budgetary matters.
This paved the way to a situation in which cities generally bowed to the dictates of the national government, even when it came to local issues like Shabbat business openings.
And on religious matters, the Rabbinate has been quick to clamp down when local municipal rabbis attempt to flex their own muscles in matters of marriage or conversion. It’s no coincidence that the boldest moves are being made by mayors like Tel Aviv’s Huldai, “who is both politically strong and heading a city that is financially stable,” Regev said.
But public opinion supporting both Shabbat transportation and marriage equality are far from limited to Tel Aviv, Regev added, pointing to the data his organization has been tracking for years in public opinion polls.
“There is a long-standing majority of Israelis when it comes to religious freedom, whether we are talking about gender equality, freedom of marriage or public transportation,” Regev said. “Let’s be clear: the change isn’t from a minority view to a majority view, but from a majority to a bigger majority. When it comes to civil marriage, for example, 59 percent of the Jewish population favored it in 2009, and that has climbed to 70 percent today.”
In the intervening years, he said, there wasn’t only a sea change in views regarding the Rabbinate, but increasing numbers were voting with their feet, choosing not to be married under its auspices. Numerous high-profile celebrities – from actors and singers to politicians, heterosexual and LGBTQ alike – are public about their decision to marry in alternative ceremonies, making their union legal abroad or forgoing the formality altogether and living in a civil union.
Uri Keidar, executive director of Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel), an organization that promotes religious freedom in Israel, agrees that “it has become much easier to move the needle” regarding issues of religion and state on a municipal level, and the movement has gathered momentum.
In the past, he said, when his organization made the case for cultural and religious pluralism to municipal leaders, it was easier for them to pass the buck. “In the past they would say, ‘We can’t do anything about it, it’s a national issue.’”
But once a few mayors became bolder and decided to take a stand, a dynamic is born in which “it becomes sort of a competition between the elected officials, and it challenges them to really decide where they stand on those issues … and to see they are able to do things locally,” Keidar said.
When the mayor of the next town is helping his residents travel on Shabbat, “You can no longer claim it’s not solvable on a local level,” Keidar added.
His group encourages the comparisons. It has twice published a Municipal Freedom Index, which measures 24 cities, rating them in “areas in which the municipal leadership indeed has the ability to influence, to take responsibility and to shape the lives of the residents.” The organization gave each city scores, assigning points based on “whether the municipality chose to take action, or instead to avoid taking action” in each category.
The highest-scoring cities in the latest index were Tel Aviv, followed by Modi’in (in central Israel), and Tel Aviv suburbs Herzliya and Ramat Gan. Last on the list were Beit Shemesh, Dimona and Bnei Brak. The latter is an overwhelmingly Orthodox city, while the other two are widely regarded as conservative cities.
The flip side of the coin is that this trend takes some of the pressure off national leaders to press for change. For example, after voting against Shabbat transportation last week, Kahol Lavan deflected criticism by saying its position is that it should be a local decision.
Keidar hypothesized that the reason municipalities are forging ahead of the national government on these issues is the higher degree of accountability local elected officials have to their voters. With their close proximity to voters, “they get pushback in the best possible way,” he said.
He pointed to events in the southern city of Ashdod in 2018, when the city’s mayor tried to impose fines on malls in nonresidential neighborhoods for opening on Shabbat. The move occurred after the Knesset passed a law granting the government – in the form of the Interior Ministry – the ability to bypass local regulations and dictate that businesses shut down on Shabbat. Ultimately, Mayor Yehiel Lasri backed off in the face of fierce local opposition and mass demonstrations. “The political price was too high,” Keidar said.
An important lesson to be drawn from these municipal episodes, he added, is the fact that religious factions aren’t withdrawing from local government coalitions when things don’t go their way.
“This really spotlights the fact that people who deeply object to public transportation on Shabbat aren’t just a minority – they are a small minority, and the only reason they hold veto power is because the majority gives it to them.”
When it comes to marriage freedom, Keidar said he saw Tel Aviv City Council’s establishment of a couple’s registry as building on Israel Hofsheet’s program of giving couples “Shared Life” identification cards for use in government offices.
“I think what they’re doing is primarily declarative – but that’s not a bad thing,” he said. “All changes start with declarations, marking a new boundary for what is acceptable, good and right. Creating a reality in which something is more comfortable and common is a big step.”
It has yet to be announced precisely what procedures couples will be asked to go through in order to receive their legal status as common-law spouses in Tel Aviv, whether or not a ceremonial aspect will be part of the process and whether it will be challenged legally.
Symbolic or not, and whatever ultimately happens in the aftermath of Tel Aviv’s announcement, Huldai is “certainly a trailblazer,” Regev acknowledged.
He and his fellow activists all said they hope the move will challenge other municipalities, further influence public opinion and push the government closer to the marriage equality the majority of Israelis want.