On the website of Hiddush, a nonprofit organization that promotes religious freedom and equality in Israel, there is a world map showing countries that restrict freedom of marriage. The countries given as imposing “severe restrictions” include most states between Morocco to the west and Pakistan to the east. And Israel is no exception.
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Marriage in the Jewish state is a complex matter, and is almost entirely under the purview of religious authorities.
There is no civil marriage. Jews can only be married in a religious ceremony, by an Orthodox rabbi under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, the top religious authority for Jews in Israel. This means there is also no interfaith marriage between Jews and non-Jews, since Orthodox Judaism does not allow mixed unions. Israelis who belong to other streams of Judaism, such as Reform or Conservative, must still tie the knot in front of an Orthodox rabbi in a traditional ceremony if they want their marriage to be recognized by the state.
Other religious authorities recognized by Israel, including those of Muslims and of Christian denominations, also do not perform interfaith marriages, so a Jew cannot marry a Muslim or a Christian unless one member of the couple converts to the faith of his or her partner. (Islamic law technically allows for a Muslim man to marry a Christian or a Jewish woman, as long as their children are raised Muslim, but Muslim clerics and scholars frown on the practice.)
This religious monopoly, which has no equal among other Western democracies, puts people whose religious status is registered as “other” in a particularly precarious position. This mainly affects immigrants from the former Soviet Union who received Israeli citizenship because they had at least one Jewish parent or grandparent, but are not considered Jews under religious law, which require a person’s mother to be Jewish.
In 2010, in an attempt to solve this issue, the Knesset passed a law that recognizes civil unions, but only if both partners are registered as not belonging to any religion. Civil rights groups criticized the law for being too restrictive and stigmatizing because, in practice, it forces these immigrants to marry only amongst themselves.
According to Hiddush, which filed a freedom of information request with the Interior Ministry, only an average of 18 couples a year have taken advantage of the new law.
Some of these immigrants and other non-Jews residing in Israel attempt to solve the problem by officially converting to Judaism, but only Orthodox conversions are considered valid and the process is lengthy and complex, and requires applicants, most of whom are secular, to pledge a high degree of observance of Jewish rules.
Since the 1960s, following a landmark Supreme Court ruling, many interfaith couples have been able to get around the law by marrying abroad – Cyprus is the closest and one of the most popular destinations – and then having the union recognized by Israel’s Interior Ministry.
This process too can be tedious and intrusive, particularly when one of the couple’s members is not Israeli, which leads ministry officials to demand proof that the marriage was genuine and not done for the purpose of obtaining citizenship. Couples are subjected to detailed questioning and asked to produce pictures, letters and other evidence of the nature of their relationship.
Rabbi Uri Regev, the president and CEO of Hiddush, noted that even Israeli couple in which both partners are unquestionably Jewish according to Orthodox religious law increasingly reject marriage in favor of cohabitation, because of the Orthodox establishment’s power over the institution. Some secular Israelis object in particular to what they see as the non-egalitarian nature of the Orthodox ceremony, he said.
They also do not want to fall under the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts in the event they decide to divorce. Under Jewish law, in order for a couple to divorce the husband must grant a get, or a divorce decree, to the wife. This stipulation can transform a woman into an “agunah,” a wife who cannot remarry and is “chained” to her husband until he agrees to grant the divorce.
Same-sex couples are also excluded from marrying. Several proposals for a law introducing civil marriage in Israel have been submitted to the Knesset by the Yesh Atid, Labor and Hatnuah parties and are scheduled to be discussed during parliament’s summer session.