“Israeli society is a conservative, family-oriented society, a society where people want children and a relationship – and a stable relationship,” says Prof. Shahar Lifshitz, a co-founder of Bar-Ilan University's Israeli Congress for Judaism and Democracy and head of the school's Menomadin Center for Jewish and Democratic Law.
“If we look at developments around the world, where voluntary childlessness is increasingly being talked about, we see that Israeli society isn’t in lockstep. Not only do Israelis want children, they want traditional religious marriages – a significantly higher percentage than the percentage of religious people in the population.”
According to a survey by Haaretz and the Israeli Congress, about 94 percent of Israelis from all walks of life, including Jews, Arabs, secular people, ultra-Orthodox people, heterosexuals and members of the LGBTQ community said having a meaningful intimate relationship was important to them. Some 87 percent said the same about having children.
But within Israel’s conservative society, another interesting statistic stands out: Over half of Israelis are in favor of civil marriage and prefer such a process if given the chance, while about 64 percent believe that civil marriage should be a legal option for anyone who desires it.
“Our research shows a real climate of tolerance. Israelis distinguish between their personal values and preferences on one side and the need to respect other people’s choices. We also see this clearly in most Israelis’ desire to marry through the Rabbinate while supporting those who choose otherwise,” Lifshitz says.
“And as a religious person, I believe that legalizing civil marriage would be of great benefit. We see this in the current climate, and it’s evident from the study: People shouldn’t be forced into anything these days. The Rabbinate’s monopoly is unnecessary because most Israelis choose religious marriage anyway. But public anger against this monopoly is growing. We feel it, and right now, in the current climate, is the right time to make the change and open up the options.”
According to Lifshitz, Israelis have become positive on civil marriage only in recent years, a view that has since strengthened. “About 15 years ago, when we first came up with the idea of civil union, it was considered a radical proposal. Today we see that this option is acceptable to most of the public in Israel,” Lifshitz says.
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“So anyone who values religious marriage should support the idea of a civil union, which for all intents and purposes is a civil marriage that preserves state control over marriage and divorce. We still have a chance to make a deal on favorable terms, and if they wait a few more years, the public climate may change, and not for the better.”
The study also shows sweeping public support for the LGBTQ community. About 61 percent of Israelis support equal rights for LGBTQ couples, about half support surrogacy for same-sex couples, and more than half say they’re frustrated that same-sex marriage isn’t legal in Israel.
According to Lifshitz, some religious people and those who define themselves as conservatives oppose same-sex parenting, thinking they’re preserving conservative values.
“But actually they’re hollowing them out. If I asked this conservative person what family values he believed in, he’d probably answer that children should grow up in a stable environment and that marriage is a way to establish stable frameworks – that even if the couple separates, the parenthood remains. But today, when same-sex couples are denied official marital status, their relationships are more precarious, making it difficult for them to achieve stable parenting,” he says.
“A recent example that shocked me is a lesbian couple in which each partner gave birth to her own biological girl, and when they separated the couple decided contractually that each mother would take her own child and cut all contact with the other. If this can happen, what’s the point of parenting to begin with?” Lifshitz adds.
“I’m a traditional person who values family and the institution of marriage, and it’s because of this that I support civil union for same-sex couples, which invites the state into the marital framework to strengthen it.”
‘The extremists are in the minority’
Meanwhile, the study reveals that Israelis are deeply divided on a variety of issues, most clearly in attitudes toward the LGBTQ community. Regarding this community, on questions that offered a scale of 1 to 7, most Israelis were firmly on either end. Even on marginal, complex questions of Jewish law such as marriage between a cohen – a descendant of the priestly class – and a widow, the dichotomy was still clear: About a third of Israelis were still opposed.
“You’re touching on one of the main challenges of Israeli society here. We have to remember that the extremists are in the minority. About 75 percent of Israelis, the absolute majority, want a state that’s both Jewish and democratic,” with 25 percent saying it can’t be both, and with many people in the latter not agreeing on anything, Lifshitz says.
“We have to remember that they aren’t the majority. We have to remember that there’s a reasonable Israeli mainstream whose voice isn’t really being heard, and it will be a great shame if the extremist voices drown them out. What we can say clearly, after several surveys we conducted on consensus levels, is that this survey – and it may be a result of the recent change in government – gives cause for optimism,” Lifshitz adds.
The latest survey, with a margin of error of 2.9 percent, was conducted among 1,089 adult Israelis who use the internet.
“Suddenly we see a positive and tolerant atmosphere in which people are willing to distinguish between their own preferences and the desires of others, to respect other people’s choices and fight for their right to make different choices,” Lifshitz says.