On the Roster of Shame

Though Israel is her homeland and though she will most likely serve in its army, my daughter is denied one of the most basic human rights - namely, the right to marry in her own country.

At least one major obstacle prevents all Israeli citizens from enjoying equal rights: the absence of civil marriage. There are hundreds of thousands of Israelis "lacking religious affiliation" who cannot get married in their own country, where they were born and raised. My daughter is one of them.

My daughter was born in Jerusalem and goes to a Hebrew-speaking school. Her father is an Israeli Jew. But because I am not Jewish and I don't identify with a particular religion, her birth certificate proclaims that she is "without religious affiliation." When she was born, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior did not even want to recognize our baby as an Israeli citizen. In order for my husband to give our daughter his name, the ministry demanded the ultimate proof: a DNA test (at our expense ) to prove his paternity.

While my daughter has now been granted citizen status and carries her father's family name, her birth certificate still takes pains to stress that she is not Jewish, and not part of the Jewish nation.

In the '60s, Israeli citizen Benjamin Shalit, who was married to a Christian woman, tried to register his children with the Interior Ministry as being without religious affiliation, but Jewish by ethnic affiliation (le'om ). The registration officer, however, refused to write that. Shalit then took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. However, as the decision sparked controversy, in the '70s an amendment was passed in the Knesset stating that only someone considered Jewish by halakha (religious law ) can be ethnically Jewish. This is why my baby, despite being the daughter of an Israeli Jew, has neither ethnical nor religious affiliation.

This means that, though Israel is her homeland and though she will most likely serve in its army, she is denied one of the most basic human rights - namely, the right to marry in her own country.

Every day, as I take my daughter for a stroll in Jerusalem's Independence Park, I meet other foreign-born mothers married to Israeli Jews, whose children are in the same situation. Some of these kids have Asian eyes, while others have chocolate-colored skin or babushka-doll cheeks - but all of them are Israel's children. Their country, however, refuses to accept them as its own and to treat them as equal citizens.

The Spousal Covenant for Persons Lacking Religious Affiliation, passed by the Knesset in 2010, was touted as a solution to the problem, but in reality it is just a disgraceful way to evade dealing with it. The law allows couples to enter into a civil union - but only when both spouses lack religious affiliation. The law basically states that such persons may marry others of their ilk, but must not "mix" with the Jews. The only way around this is to go abroad to marry. Hence, rather than being a step in the right direction, it only reinforces the sectarian character of Israeli society.

The only recourse remaining to mixed couples in Israel is to go abroad to get married. Each year, thousands of Israelis travel to Cyprus, the island of Venus, to exercise the basic right of marrying the person they love. As a matter of fact, Israel's failure to implement civil marriage is a clear breach of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family."

When we went to Cyprus to marry, my husband and I met other couples who had come there for the same purpose, including some Lebanese couples who, like us, were unable to marry in their own land. The absence of civil marriage, a clear violation of civil liberties, is a characteristic of countries known for their disrespect for human rights, such as Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran. Israel should not be on this roster of shame. But as long as its citizens do not act to change the situation, that is where, unfortunately, it will remain.

Anna Mahjar-Barducci, a Moroccan-Italian journalist and author, is president of the Rome-based Liberal and Democratic Arabs Association, which promotes civil liberties and immigrants' integration in Europe.