The Time Has Come for Civil Marriage in Israel

Growing number of Israeli couples who avoid the rabbinical establishment need an alternative that would guarantee their basic rights

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
File photo: Alternative wedding ceremony led by members of left-wing Meretz party in front of the Chief Rabbinate of Tel Aviv, January 2013.
File photo: Alternative wedding ceremony led by members of left-wing Meretz party in front of the Chief Rabbinate of Tel Aviv, January 2013.Credit: Moti Milrod

The despair over the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage in this country is making itself felt. From year to year, there is a growing number of couples who avoid the rabbinical establishment, preferring to get married without the rabbinate or who choose not to marry at all. This is according to a report published this week by the marriage division of the Religious Services Ministry.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 11Credit: Haaretz

Over the past two years, there has been a significant drop in the number of people registering to marry through the rabbinate, a decline of 4.7 percent in 2017 and 6.2 percent last year, according to the report. There is a variety of reasons for the decline: a substantial increase in the number of couples living together without marrying; an increase in the number of single Jewish men and women in the 25-29 and 45-49 age groups; larger numbers of people being married by Orthodox rabbis but not through the rabbinate; and an increase in the number of couples married by Conservative and Reform rabbis. 

>> Fewer Israelis marrying through rabbinate, report shows

Israel is the only democratic country in the world that does not allow civil marriage, and as a result, many Israelis cannot get married within the country. Civil marriage is not only essential for secular people who wish to marry in a manner consistent with their worldview. The rabbinate also places obstacles in the way of many people who do want to get married under its auspices — people whom the rabbinate does not recognize as Jews according to halakha, Jewish religious law, either because it doesn’t view them as Jews or because they have no documents proving that they are Jewish. 

In 2018, according to the report, marriage registrars referred 3,996 couples to a rabbinical court to clarify their status as Jews. Of them, 122 could not prove they were Jewish. Every year there are roughly 15 couples who are not approved for marriage because at least one prospective spouse is on a list of people whose marriage cannot proceed. In addition, around 400,000 Israelis, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants, cannot get married in Israel since they are not Jews according to Jewish religious law.

The fact that Israel does not make civil marriage available as an alternative to marriage through the rabbinate violates the principle of equality for those who are ineligible to marry through the rabbinate. This includes same-gender couples and religious intermarriages. The situation denies them their basic right to marry. Making civil marriage available is relevant and essential for Israelis of all political stripes. This is a subject over which cooperation is fitting and possible. The time has come for a parallel civil marriage system under the Justice Ministry’s auspices through which every man and woman in this country can marry.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.