Blockbuster Reform Would Allow Israeli Civil Marriage – and Severely Limit Aliyah

A radical proposal by Israel's religious services minister would open the door to civil marriage, but couple it with tightening the criteria for aliyah. Finance minister Lieberman and MK Gilad Kariv are up in arms against it

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A protest in Jerusalem calling for civil marriage to be officially recognized in Israel.
A protest in Jerusalem calling for civil marriage to be officially recognized in Israel. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

A deal that would enable a form of civil marriage in Israel but dramatically limit eligibility for citizenship under the Law of Return is under discussion at the highest levels of government.

First reported on Channel 12 News, the deal would allow Israeli couples to hold civil marriages at foreign consulates around the country, thereby circumventing the need to travel abroad for such ceremonies.

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Currently, the state only recognizes civil marriages held outside of Israel. Under the existing law, marriages held in Israel are only recognized by the state if they are performed under the auspices of the religious community to which the couple belongs.

Jewish couples, for instance, are required to wed under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate if they want to be registered as married. For this reason, same-sex marriages and interfaith marriages are not recognized in Israel.

The proposal that would open the way for civil marriage is the initiative of Sharren Haskel, a member of the secular-rightist New Hope party, which is a partner in the governing coalition. She raised it several weeks ago with Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana.

According to the minister’s spokesman, Kahana supports the idea. He insists, however, that in exchange for his consent, the Law of Return be amended to limit the number of non-Jews allowed to immigrate to Israel so as to prevent the spread of intermarriage.

Kahana, who is Orthodox and a member of the Yamina party headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, is also very close to the premier.

Under the Law of Return, an individual with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship. But only a child born to a Jewish mother is considered Jewish by religious law, or halakha. The Rabbinate will not marry immigrants who are not halakhically Jewish.

In recent years, about a third of the immigrants coming to Israel are not halakhically Jewish and, therefore, cannot marry in the country. Russia and Ukraine have been the largest suppliers of immigrants to Israel in recent decades, but the majority of immigrants from those countries in recent years are not halakhically Jewish.

Kahana has proposed eliminating the so-called “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return, so that only individuals with at least one Jewish parent would be eligible for aliyah. This would dramatically reduce the potential pool of immigrants.

According to Kahana’s spokesman, the deal has been presented to several members of the cabinet, but discussions regarding its execution are still in the preliminary stages.

Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party draws heavily on support from Russian-speaking immigrants, has already expressed his fierce opposition to any such deal.

“There is no deal – there are lies,” he tweeted on Monday. “I hear reports this evening of a so-called deal that would allow people to get married in consulates in exchange for the elimination of the grandchild clause in the Law of Return. I don’t know of any such proposal, and Yisrael Beiteinu will not sit in a government that agrees to such folly. Civil marriage is an important initiative that should not be subject to any conditions.”

The definition of eligibility under the Law of Return applies not only to aliyah but also to participation in Birthright, the program that brings to Israel every year tens of thousands of young adults who are either Jewish or have Jewish roots on free, 10-day trips. The same holds true for Masa, which brings thousands of participants to Israel each year on educational, internship and volunteer programs.

Participants on a Birthright tour in Israel.Credit: Taglit

Originally legislated in 1950, the Law of Return was meant to provide all Jews with the right to live in Israel. It was amended in 1970 to include the children and grandchildren of Jews as well. The amendment implies that any individual who would have been persecuted by the Nazis, under the Nuremberg Race Laws, deserves the right to a safe haven in Israel.

The proposed amendment to the law will likely spark opposition in the non-Orthodox Jewish world, where interfaith marriage is common and many individuals stand to be affected.

Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi and chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, called the proposed amendment a red line.

“This is an idea that undermines basic Zionist principles and shows an absolute disconnect from the challenges facing the Jewish people in the 21st century,” said the Labor lawmaker in a statement Monday.

“Freedom of choice in marriage and divorce should be promoted without any connection to the Law of Return or any other issue. The current monopoly exercised by the Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts harms both the basic rights of Israeli citizens and the status of Jewish tradition in Israeli society.”

He urged anyone interested in promoting “positive measures” in matters of religion and state to “remove your hands” from the Law of Return and focus instead on “the wishes of most of the public for the legalization of civil marriage.”

Demonstrators in Tel Aviv calling for civil marriage in Israel.Credit: Guy Reibitz

An estimated 450,000 Israelis are immigrants or children of immigrants who were eligible for aliyah under the Law of Return despite not being halakhically Jewish. As a result, they cannot legally marry in Israel.

Kahana has been working on a new legislative initiative that would make it easier for members of this group to convert. Most of them choose not to convert because of the stringent requirements of the Rabbinate, which currently controls the national conversion authority. Under Kahana’s proposal, municipal rabbis would be allowed to perform conversions and the Rabbinate would lose its hold on the system.

Kahana has often said his main objective is to fight what he considers to be the growing problem of intermarriage in Israel.

In recent years, growing numbers of Israelis – even Orthodox Jews – have been choosing to marry outside of the Rabbinate. Since such marriages are not recognized in Israel, many of these couples hold a second civil ceremony abroad so they can register as married.

Ne’emanei Torah v’Avodah, a progressive Orthodox movement, welcomed what it termed “this reevaluation of the status quo concerning marriage.”

The Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage, the movement said, “hurts hundreds of thousands of Israelis who cannot marry, and is responsible for the growing phenomenon of Israelis who choose to wed in ceremonies that are not officially recognized.”

The movement also welcomed the proposed change in the Law of Return, saying it would “strengthen the Jewish character of the State of Israel.”

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