A proposal to allow civil unions in Israel has drawn attention to the country's strict religious controls on marriage and divorce, and gets to the heart of what Israel's self-definition as a "Jewish state" really means for its citizens.
In late October, parliament members from Israel's centrist Yesh Atid party submitted a bill to allow civil unions in Israel. If enacted, two people, regardless of religion or sexual orientation, would be able to apply for a secular civil union, which would fall under the same legal status as marriage.
Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid and the country's finance minister, said the law's purpose is "to allow every Israeli citizen - Jewish or not, gay or straight - to receive recognition of his right to love from his country".
"This is a historic step in the civil revolution we're leading, and it cannot fall because of small-minded politics or a war on credit," Lapid said.
Israel does not have a written constitution. Instead, it has a set of "Basic Laws", including one that defines the country as a "Jewish state". Under this system, several basic rights are governed along religious lines, and non-Jewish citizens regularly accuse the state of religious-based discrimination.
Today, all marriages in Israel fall under the jurisdiction of state-recognised religious institutions. Among Jewish Israelis, the chief rabbinate is the only body with the legal authority over marriage and divorce. This means that only people who are recognised as Jews under Orthodox Judaism can get married in Israel. They can only marry other Jews who meet the same criteria.
Jewish men also cannot marry a divorcee, or a convert to Judaism, among other restrictions under Orthodox doctrines. Any couple that marries outside the chief rabbinate, as well as the rabbi that conducts the ceremony, can be subject to two years' imprisonment under the Ottoman criminal code.
|Over 9,000 Israeli couples reportedly married outside the country in 2010 [Reuters]
In a recent opinion piece in Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Rabbi Avi Shafran, public affairs director at Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group, cautioned Israel from allowing liberal Judaism to shun Orthodox standards.
"Multiple Jewish standards yield multiple 'Jewish peoples'," Shafran wrote.
"Until fairly recently, the 'highest common denominator' standard has always been halakha - 'Orthodoxy.' At present in Israel, it still is. But should the pluralism push there make inroads, what would result... would be nothing short of Jewish societal disaster."
Hiddush, a group that works on religious freedom in Israel, released a Freedom of Marriage World Map in March that gave Israel a score of zero and described it as upholding "severe restrictions on freedom of marriage", on par with Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia.
According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), 9,262 Israeli couples reported marrying abroad in 2010. In 2011, almost 39,000 Jewish Israeli couples married inside the country. When Jewish Israelis marry abroad, the marriages are recognised upon their return to Israel.
The CBS also found that over the past ten years, the number of Jewish Israeli couples choosing to live together without getting married rose by 250 percent.
"This is clearly attributed to a growing number of Israelis who refuse to marry in the Orthodox ritual, and couples who fear that if their marriage would not succeed they would be under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox rabbinate for the dissolution of the marriage," Hiddush found. According to Hiddush, more than 300,000 Israeli citizens, representing some four percent of the population, don't have official religious status in Israel, thereby making them ineligible to get married.
Most of these are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and have paternal Jewish ancestry. Judaism is traditionally passed down through a family's maternal side.
Shahar Liftshitz is co-director of the Israel Democracy Institute's Human Rights and Judaism Project and Dean of the Bar-Ilan University Law Faculty. In 2006, Liftshitz formulated a proposal to create a "spousal registry" and bring civil unions to Israel, similar to the bill now being proposed by Yesh Atid.
The plan would create parallel tracks for marriage in Israel, and give couples that are not allowed to marry under Jewish religious law, or that choose not to, another option. While these couples would be granted full civil rights as prescribed under marriage, the title "marriage" won't apply.
More and more religious people understand that a spousal registry could be a reasonable compromise.
Liftshitz told Al Jazeera that opposition from religious groups has been largely based on fears that civil marriages would produce "bastard" children (mazmerim, in Hebrew); under Jewish law, children born to a woman and a partner who is not her husband are deemed "bastards".
He said that gradually, more religious Israelis and Jewish religious leaders have realized that a spousal registry could be a fair compromise, and stem the waves of Jewish Israelis going abroad to get married.
"Because religious marriages are not a good solution for a lot of people, they choose to cohabitate without getting married. They choose to get married outside Israel. More and more religious people understand that a spousal registry could be a reasonable compromise," Liftshitz said.
Family unification denied
Currently, Israel's religious minorities can also only be married to spouses of the same religion in ceremonies conducted by religious authorities that are recognised by the state.
But Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the country's population, face even more severe restrictions on marriage. Most notably, an Israeli law prevents them from applying for permits to allow their spouses to enter and reside in Israel for the purpose of family unification.
Known as the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, it severely limits the ability of Palestinian citizens of Israel from living with their spouses if they are residents of the occupied Palestinian territories, or of so-called "enemy states" (Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq).
In 2012, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition challenging the legislation. The Court ruled that even though the law harmed the constitutional rights of Israeli citizens, this breach of rights was proportional and did not violate Israel's Basic Laws.
"This is emphasising my feeling of being discriminated against. It's weird that [Israel is] talking about civil marriage for one ethnic group, [but] not allowing marriage of a second group," said Taiseer Khatib, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who lives in Acre.
It's weird that [Israel is] talking about civil marriage for one ethnic group, [but] not allowing marriage of a second group.
Khatib's wife, Lana, is originally from Jenin and has a West Bank-only ID card. The couple met in 2002, and married shortly thereafter. But the Citizenship and Entry into Israel law made it illegal for Lana to live freely with her family in northern Israel.
She has received temporary, one-year permits to remain in Israel since then, but the permit doesn't give Lana basic rights - such as healthcare, employment, a driver's license, or social services - and can be revoked at any time.
"She is kind of tied to the house. She is unable to drive. She is unable to work. This creates psychological problems. We are not talking about luxury; we're talking about basic things in life that are normal. This normality is still far away from us," Khatib told Al Jazeera.
"All of what's going on is more parts of a puzzle that is designated to make Palestinians in Israel just say: 'Okay, it's not worth it. Let's go and find a better future for us and our children where [we're] not discriminated against,'" he said.
Israel justifies its ban on family unification on the basis of security, stating that it prevents potential harm to Israeli citizens and stops threats of "terrorism".
But according to Israeli state data released by Adalah, a legal center for Palestinian citizens of Israel, between 2001-2010, only 54 people of the over 130,000 that had received status in Israel through family unification were "directly involved in terrorist attacks" or were prevented from carrying out the attacks.
Of that, only seven were actually indicted for security-related offenses.
"It is clear that the Citizenship Law has little to do with security. The purpose of the law is demographic… According to this racist discourse, the very existence of Arabs in Israel, rather than their actions, constitutes an existential threat to the State," Adalah stated.
Discrimination against women
According to Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, head of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women's Status at Bar-Ilan University, creating two separate tracks for marriage, leaving the religious option intact, does not truly help women in Israel.
"From the perspective of the state, [when] it will only be civil marriages and civil divorces that will be formally recognised… only that will substantially improve the situation of women," said Halperin-Kaddari, who is also a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Halperin-Kaddari told Al Jazeera that one in three women who get divorced in Israel is subjected to threats and discrimination during the process.
"The daily dynamics of divorce in Israel are that women have to buy their freedom. They have to pay for that through waiving their rights, whether it is economic rights or sometimes even child support, or other matters that have to deal with the children such as custody or visitation, and the extortion that goes on in rabbinical courts is sadly a daily reality," she said.
In its 2011 report, CEDAW criticised the handling of marriage and divorce in Israel's rabbinical courts, "which are male dominated and completely governed by religious law".
This system leads to discrimination against women on several fronts, including the fact that husbands must agree to a divorce (the so-called "get"), and that polygamy and marriages of under-age girls are justified under religious doctrine, and Israel must introduce an optional system of civil marriage and divorce, CEDAW found.
"It has everything to do with the self-definition of the state [as a Jewish state]," Halperin-Kaddari added.
|Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, said his party's civil union bill is "a historic step in the civil revolution" in Israel [EPA]
But there is little chance that the proposed bill will pass a parliamentary vote in its current form.
It faces opposition from the right-wing, pro-settlement Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party, a key group in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government.
A spokesperson for Uri Ariel, a Habayit Hayehudi parliament member and the Minister of Housing and Construction, told Al Jazeera that Ariel wasn’t speaking to the media about this topic.
But according to a report in Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Ariel said: "The Civil Union Law harms the basic Jewish values of the State of Israel... Anyone who thinks they can force such legislation that damages the Jewish identity of the State of Israel while dividing the people is mistaken and misleading."
Habayit Hayehudi holds a veto power over all matters related to religion and state in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
Several Habayit Hayehudi MKs have vowed to block the law, and have said they will also vote against any law that legalizes same-sex marriage. "With all our openness, we are still not Yesh Atid," one party figure said, according to the report in Ha'aretz.
Still, Yesh Atid leaders have stood by the proposal.
The bill "does not overstep into the rabbinate's territory. Its goal is to enable any couple that can't or doesn't want to marry in the rabbinate to live meaningful lives without losing their civil rights," said MK Ruth Calderon, who tabled the legislation.