Not Just Man and Wife

Progressive trend in Israel: a swift and profound erosion of the official status of marriage.

A proposal to amend the Inheritance Law currently being prepared by the Justice Ministry, fits into a fascinating trend in Israel. Its kernel: a swift and profound erosion of the official status of marriage, almost to the point of making it superfluous.

As was recently reported, two revolutionary changes have been introduced into the Inheritance Law: The first is the deletion of the words "man and wife" from the provision defining a couple. Thus, from the moment this is passed, the law will also apply to single-sex couples. If one of the partners dies, his mate may inherit his property without a will or a court battle, unlike the current situation.

The other change, which is just as important, states that a married couple living apart for more than three years will not be able to inherit from each other automatically. That is, under the amendment, the state would no longer sanctify the marriage certificate, the official status of legal wedlock. The state prefers to evaluate the actual status of the couple's relationship. Unmarried partners who live together, and same-sex couples whose marriage is not recognized by law in any case, will have inheritance rights under the new law - even more so than legally married couples who do not live together.

The initiative for this progressive legal move comes from above, from the authorities, but it meshes with a grass-root trend: Nowadays people are finding original ways to live together without an official state sanction. According to figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Interior Ministry, in 2005 there was a steep decline in the number of people marrying in Israel (from 40,000 in 2004 to 26,000 in 2005). The Foreign Ministry creates many difficulties for Israelis who wish to marry in other countries, particularly in Europe, and in 2005 there was also a decline in the number of people who requested marriage confirmations following civil marriages abroad.

The public is beginning to understand that there is actually no need for an official marriage. In the problematic cases - for example, when someone wants to obtain legal status for a non-Jewish partner - the state in any case tends to attribute little value to an official marriage. The amendment to the Citizenship Law, which denies citizenship to Palestinians who are married to Israelis, is one clear example of this.

According to the figures of the New Family association, 42 percent of the families in Israel are outside the legal consensus: This includes common-law spouses (5 percent), people wedded in civil marriages (3 percent), interreligious married couples (10 percent), single-sex families (1 percent), non-Jewish families (14 percent), single-parent families (7 percent) and families of migrant workers (2 percent). And the official marriages do not necessarily hold up: In Israel, 18 percent of marriages end in divorce, and that number is rising.

However it is impossible to say that Israeli society has relinquished marriage, as has happened in many European countries. In Finland and Denmark, one-third of the population lives and raises children in common-law relationships; that is, without getting married. In Holland, Austria and France about one-fifth of couples living together are not married. In Israel the proportion of non-married couples is still no more than 5 percent.

The stability of marriage in Israel is also impressive relative to the divorce rate of other countries: In Sweden and Russia about 65 percent of marriages end in divorce; in Britain and in the United States about 50 percent do. In Israel the divorce rate is 18 percent, but the trend is starting to change. It will quickly become clear that official marriage is just one non-essential possibility for reinforcing a relationship. There is no need to wait for the official separation between religion and state. In any case the state is actually in the midst of a separation from religion, even though they have not yet divorced.