On April 29, the non-profit organisation Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, which advocates religious freedom and equality in Israel, released a comparative online world map that examines the current status of freedom of marriage in 194 countries. The study, which is the first-of-its-kind, revealed that “although Israel is a democratic and liberal state, it ranks among some of the most fundamentalist countries in the Islamic world on this issue”.
The countries examined are graded on a scale of 0-2, based on the degree to which freedom of marriage is guaranteed to the given country’s citizens. The study shows that only in 93 (48 percent) of the countries in question there is complete or almost complete freedom of marriage (grade 2). There are partial restrictions on freedom of marriage (grade 1) in 56 (29 percent) of the countries and in 45 (23 percent) – including Israel – there are severe restrictions on freedom of marriage (grade 0). From those 45 countries where there are severe restrictions on freedom of marriage, 33 are Islamic countries.
According to the study, “Israel is the only Western democracy in the world that received the lowest grade. Its restrictions on marriage places Israel, in this regard, alongside its neighbouring Muslim countries: Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia (…).” North Korea, an officially atheist country in which inter-class marriage is forbidden, received the same grade as Israel: a zero.
Israeli matrimonial law
Israeli matrimonial law is based on the Millet system employed in the Ottoman Empire. According to this confessional community system, issues of personal status such as marriage and divorce are governed by the religious law of the parties concerned. For example, Israeli Islamic law courts have exclusive jurisdiction in matters of personal status concerning Israeli Muslim citizens. Therefore, Israeli citizens can only marry spouses of the same religion and only by their own recognised religious authority. That is to say, interfaith and non-religious marriages are not allowed in Israel.
This restriction limits the freedom of individuals who do not subject themselves to religious authorities. Currently, more than 300,000 Israeli citizens who are labelled as “without religion” – approximately 4 percent of the Israeli population – are deprived from the right to marry their respective beloved ones in their own country. Most of them are new immigrants from the former Soviet Union who do have paternal Jewish ancestry, and thus, are eligible for the Law of Return, but whose mothers are not Jewish, and hence, not Jewish “enough” under Orthodox Jewish law.
Many of them choose to marry in nearby Cyprus, whose flourishing wedding market offers packages specially tailored for couples with at least an Israeli member. If such couples wish to obtain a divorce, they must go through the Chief Rabbinate, which generally advises against divorce, impeding quick legal dissolutions of unsuccessful marriages.
Israel must choose which group it's in: that of Iran, Saudi Arabia and China or the group with France, Spain and New York.
The Chief Rabbinate, which operates according to Orthodox Jewish standards, has a monopoly over Jewish marriage and divorce: the only in-country Jewish marriages the government recognises are those performed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, and only spouses who are recognised as Jews according to Orthodox Jewish law can marry in Israel. Therefore, marriages performed by Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist rabbis nor marriages in which an spouse is not recognised as Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law, are allowed in Israel.
Ironically, only 20 percent of the Jewish population defines itself as Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. The 80 percent left of Jewish Israeli citizens are secular.
Non-Orthodox marriages of Jews, civil marriages and/or interfaith marriages legally held abroad are recognised by the Israeli Ministry of Interior. Due to Israeli Supreme Court rulings from the 1960s, the Ministry of Interior registers and accepts civil marriages held abroad. Same-sex couples have access to the same loophole thanks to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics data, in 2010, 47,855 couples married in Israel and in the same year, 9,262 couples reported to the Ministry of the Interior that they married abroad. This means that 16 percent of the marriages of Israelis in 2010 were held abroad.
An opportunity that shall not be missed
Immediately after the publication of the study, opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich (Labour Party) acknowledged [FB] that, despite the fact that most Israelis do prefer to marry according to Jewish tradition, “that doesn’t mean for one second that we can allow ourselves to coerce those who can’t do so, or aren’t interested in doing so”. “We’re a Western and modern state, and the choice between getting married according to Jewish law and civil marriage is a basic and necessary choice in a democracy,” she said.
Three times MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), chairman of the lobby for civil equality and pluralism in the Israeli Parliament, submitted bills seeking civil marriage, but each was blocked at an early stage. “Israel must choose which group it’s in: that of Iran, Saudi Arabia and China or the group with France, Spain and New York,” he said.
In early March, Yair Lapid, the leader of the political party Yesh Atid (There is Future), demanded major changes to Israel’s religious status quo, among them the establishment of civil marriage, as part of coalition negotiations with Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu team. The demands will likely meet no objections from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu faction. However, it remains a mystery whether Prime Minister Netanyahu and his political ally Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett, whose core constituency is made up of observant Jews, will endorse significant changes in this regard.
For the first time since 1977, there are no ultra-Orthodox parties in the recently-formed governing coalition. The ascendancy of two new parties, in particular Yesh Atid, reflects an increasing restiveness in Israeli society, amply demonstrated during the summer of 2011, when Israelis massively protested against the growing unaffordability of Israeli life and the unfairness of not requiring religious Israelis to do military service. The opportunity to grant Israeli citizens, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Atheist or Agnostic, with the right to marry as they choose is now. And such opportunity shall not be missed.
Tania de Ildefonso Ocampos is a Spanish journalist based in Tel Aviv who specialises in the Arab-Israeli conflict, along with Israeli history and politics.
Follow her on Twitter: @TIldefonso