Last week, France became the 14th country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in two cases, one state and one federal, on the issue as well and will weigh in with its decisions shortly. Many analysts are confident that in some way, probably quite narrowly but still, the court will nudge same-sex marriage forward in America.
In some ways, Israel has already been there, done that: In 2006, the Supreme Court here ruled to recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad in countries, like Canada or Spain, where it’s already legal. It’s the same loophole that opposite-sex couples that don’t want to be married under the thumb of the rabbinate use when they hop over to Cyprus for a civil ceremony.
But loopholes can be closed and court decisions can be overturned. Israel must establish civil marriage and must legislate it into law. Just as the country recognizes multiple systems of education – both religious and secular – so too must it recognize multiple systems of marriage – one sanctioned by religious authorities and one sanctioned by the state.
The gay and lesbian community should be at the forefront of this conversation, advocating for civil marriage for all and ensuring that gay and lesbian couples are not excluded when this right is finally established.
There is a very real possibility that, thanks to political maneuvering and the unpredictable creatures that are coalitions, when finally put in front of the Knesset, civil marriage in Israel could include a clause defining it as only between a man and a woman.
Civil marriage was batted around in the recent election campaign; Yair Lapid even had it on his platform, for a time. But when the coalition was sealed, the issue disappeared. Avigdor Lieberman has also advocated for civil marriage because his large constituency of Russian immigrants has faced numerous obstacles proving their Jewish identity to the satisfaction of the rabbinate. But he didn’t invite same-sex couples to his party.
Let Lieberman’s distinction be a warning: The gay and lesbian community cannot afford to get left behind when this issue is finally put on the table. MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), head of the lobby for Civil Equality and Pluralism, has diligently brought gay and lesbian-inclusive civil-marriage bills to the Knesset for years only to see them tossed away at early stages.
Lawmakers will not take on this contentious issue if citizens don’t demand it. Israelis must recognize that civil marriage is an important and symbolic right that is part of this country’s larger struggle to separate religion and state – both to protect religion and to protect citizens who choose not to practice it.
The gay and lesbian community is in a unique position to take the lead and must do so to ensure that the definition of civil marriage – both in law and in the hearts and minds of Israeli citizens – includes same-sex couples.
Otherwise, progressive rulings in the courts, which are responsible for nearly all of the rights given to the gay community in the last two decades, are precarious at best.
I wrote recently that the gay community in Israel has traded the chuppah in favor of the bris as its ritual of choice. In other words, with these quasi-marriage rights already achieved, the community has moved on to advocating for parenting and surrogacy rights. This is a laudable and understandable progression. But the book on civil and same-sex marriage in Israel isn’t closed and the gay community must help write it or risk being left out entirely.
Brian Schaefer is a writer for Haaretz English.