Why Gay Marriage Isn't Coming to Israel Any Time Soon

Aeyal Gross
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White House illuminated with rainbow colors after Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage. June 26, 2015Credit: AP
Aeyal Gross

In light of the political and cultural ties between the United States and Israel, the great interest aroused in Israel in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is understandable. The court ruled that the right of a same-sex couple to marry is a Constitutional one. But even if there is a grain of truth in the cliché that every American trend comes to Israel a few years later, the relevance of the decision in Washington to the situation here is far from clear.

In Israel there is no civil marriage, and even the idea of a so-called civil union as an alternative has dissipated, although in the Knesset there is (still) a secular majority that could bring about a change. Apparently there is no real political will for such a step. And in a country where even marriage between members of different religions doesn’t exist, it’s somewhat difficult to imagine the marriage of two people of the same sex.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision is further irrelevant to Israel because with only religious marriages being permitted here, alternatives to the institution of marriage have been created to solve the needs of couples - to begin with, only heterosexual couples - who didn’t want or couldn’t have a religious marriage.

The institution of common-law alliances (cohabitation) developed in legislation and court rulings over the years, and in the 1990s same-sex couples were quite successful in joining that institution, thanks to court decisions. In addition, already in the 1960s, when marriages conducted in Cyprus became popular, the court ruled that the Interior Ministry must register the marriages conducted abroad, even if the marriage was of a kind that is not recognized in Israel.

In 2006, when marriages of same-sex couples started to become an option in various foreign countries, Israel’s Supreme Court applied the same decision to same-sex Israeli couples who married in Canada. Thus, such couples in Israel can receive recognition of their partner relationship and of many rights connected to it, while bypassing the state institution of marriage.

Of course there is no complete equality here, one reason being the remaining gaps between heterosexual married couples and common-law couples (especially in access to institutions related to parenthood, such as adoption and surrogacy), and also due to the message conveyed by exclusion. But there is also a positive aspect to this story: Eliminating the option of entering and exiting partner relationships for same-sex couples by means of government institutions also offers more freedom from those institutions.

I personally am thankful every day that the rabbinate doesn’t recognize my relationship, and that there isn’t even an option of marrying through the rabbinate. Government recognition of entering and exiting a couple relationship may be of some value, but it also deprives the individual of freedom. Still, that doesn’t detract from the importance of the need to treat same-sex couples with full equality.

So in what way will the American decision affect us? It’s possible it will finally release us from the cliché that Israel is “one of the most advanced countries in the world” in the area of rights for same-sex couples. That statement was correct about 20 years ago, but today, when a growing number of countries in the democratic world offer equal rights to the partner relationships and parenthood of same-sex couples, Israel, despite all the above-mentioned changes, has remained behind. If that makes “pinkwashing” - the propagandists’ use of the rights of the LGBT community as “proof” that despite the occupation Israel, is a wonderful democracy - less convincing, that’s enough for us.

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