Love and marriage in Israel

In February last year, Gili and Sagi, a young Israeli couple, were “married” at sea - a marriage that was not legally recognised by the State of Israel. Although they are both Jewish, the couple objected to the only marriage option open to them in Israel: an Orthodox Jewish ceremony. Instead, they chose a marriage contract that they drew up themselves, together with a lawyer, thus rendering their union illegal.

On the other side of the divide, Aneesa, an Arab Israeli, who holds a Jerusalem ID, married a Jordanian three years ago. “Because he also carries a Gaza identity card, he is not allowed in Jerusalem. Forget getting his own Jerusalem ID, he is not even allowed to visit here,” says Aneesa. She cannot remember the last time she saw her husband.

For all the differences that exist between these two couples, they share one major parallel: both couples are unhappy with the current marriage laws in Israel. Paradoxically, Israel is touted as the only “democracy” in the world that does not offer its citizens the option of civil marriage. Since 1953, only Orthodox Jewish marriages, and civil marriages performed outside Israel, have been legally recognised by the Israeli state. While interfaith and other religious marriages are not prohibited, they are also not legally recognised by the state.

Aneesa’s discontent

Aneesa’s problem stems from the decision by Israel’s parliament to pass a new law in July, which prevents Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who marrying fellow Palestinians, whom the Israeli state had ethnically defined as ‘Arab Israeli’s’, from obtaining residency permits and/or citizenship in Israel. Under the new law, Palestinians alone will be excluded from obtaining citizenship or residency. Anyone else who marries an Israeli will be entitled to Israeli citizenship.

This means that ‘Arab Israelis’, who make up about 20% of the population of Israel, who marry Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip will either have to move to the Occupied Territories, or live apart from their husband or wife, as is the case with Aneesa. Children will be affected too: from the age of 12 they will be denied citizenship or residency and forced to move out of Israel.

According to Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian political activist, the new marriage laws are aimed at limiting the number of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and consequently, political and economic rights within Israel. Abunimah’s claims were given substance, when, in June last year, the chairman of Israel’s National Security Council, Major-General Uzi Dayan, claimed that by 2020 Arabs, in Israel and the Palestinian areas, would outnumber Jews by 55 to 45 per cent.

Israeli Knesset member Zehava Gal-On called the new law “racist and discriminatory”, and it has even been compared to apartheid-era South African laws that banned interracial marriages. International human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also condemned the law as racist.

Israel’s government contends that such a law is necessary for security reasons. Advocates of the current marriage laws claim that it is necessary to preserve Jewish identity and life, but some analysts have suggested that the new laws pertaining to Palestinian marriages, have emerged amid a sense of panic in some sections of Israeli society over demographic research that suggests Jews - as recognised by the Orthodox rabbinate - could be in a minority in Israel within 30 years.

Israeli government representatives, however, deny this. According to Daniel Pinhasi, First Secretary at the Israeli embassy in South Africa, Israeli law does not favour any one religion or group. Pinhasi claims that in addition to marriages performed by religious office holders (Christian, Muslim, Jewish and others equally), the Israeli law recognizes other associations: from civil marriages performed abroad, to agreements facilitated by AgauthorizedAh persons in Israel, and onto arrangements between same sex partners. According to Pinhasi, Agthe current situation reflects the unique combination of tradition and modernity to be found in IsraelAh.

Not every agrees with Pinhasi’s view. According to Rabbi Charles Wallach, Executive Director of the South African Union for Progressive Judaism (SAUPJ), Agthere are many ordinary Israelis who see the traditional words and documents used as not speaking to them. The growing equality between men and women needs to have expression and it is that that many ordinary Israelis missAh, said Wallach.

Wallach’s words ring true when one considers the statistics: between 1975 and 1996 the Jewish population grew by 57%, but there was a decline of 2% in the number of Jewish couples who married under the Orthodox Rabbinate during the same period.

Gili and Sagi are typical examples of this. They told Israeli TV and the press that they firmly objected to the Orthodox Jewish marriage ceremony and their perceived discrimination against the rights of the woman in the ketuba - the Orthodox marriage contract. The couple did not wish to have any association with the Orthodox Rabbinate and drew up their own marriage contract. Their symbolic, protest “marriage” on board a ship at sea, was organized by the Forum for Freedom of Choice in Marriage, which is managed by Hemdat, the Council for Freedom of Religion in Israel.

Denied a basic right

Zamira Segev, Hemdat’s executive director, and the coordinator of the Forum described Gili and Sagi’s “civil marriage” ceremony as “a protest against the sad reality that there are no options in Israel for civil marriage by couples who prefer that form of marriage… It is sad indeed that we must resort to this form of media event to let the public know about this serious denial of basic civil rights in Israeli society”, she added.

The Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC), a lobby group, in collaboration with other grass roots organisations, pioneered the drafting of a constitutional freedom of religion bill, which included the right to civil and non-Orthodox marriage and divorce, that was recently rejected by the Knesset.

According to IRAC, the Orthodox monopoly over marriage and divorce violates Israel’s Declaration of Independence protecting freedom of religion and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Israel is a signatory. Article 23 of the Covenant that declares that men and women have the right to marry and to found a family, and are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. According to IRAC, the current situation does not allow for this.

In responding to claims that the current situation discriminates against non-Orthodox Jews, Rabbi Cyril Harris, Chief Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) in South Africa, replied that it is “important to differentiate between the view of the secularist who wishes no restrictions, and the Orthodox who wish to perpetuate the laws of Judaism as given in the Torah. Hence the answer is dependent on one’s view of Israel as a truly Jewish state.” According to Harris, Israel should adhere to traditional norms.

Who’s Jewish?

However, traditional norms have called into question the religious affiliation of a significant percentage of Israeli society. The last decade has witnessed massive immigration - mostly migrants from the former Soviet Union. Citizens without a religion constitute a large number of this group. It is estimated that out of the 800 000 new immigrants from the former Soviet Union that have come to Israel since 1989, approximately 30% are not Jewish by Orthodox standards, according to Chief Rabbinate and Interior Ministry sources.

Demographic research suggests that this trend is continuing. According to Sergio Della Pergola, head of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University in Israel, of the 30 000 immigrants from eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and South America who arrived in Israel last year, over half of those arriving under the 1950 Law of Return were not considered Jewish according to halakha, or Orthodox rabbinical law.

The rules on marriage are enforced by Israel’s small, but influential, Orthodox community. Drawing on Old Testament statutes, these rabbis argue that God recognises only Jewish marriages conducted according to Orthodox tradition. With secular and liberal Jews now constituting the majority of the Israeli population, the situation has become increasingly problematic, as many reject Orthodox traditions, mainly because they believe it discriminates against women.
According to halakhic law (Jewish law), a marriage can conventionally be terminated in two ways: the death of a spouse, or the issuing of a get (divorce). A husband can, in principle, refuse to give a get indefinitely, and the woman cannot remarry or have children. In addition, childless widows must obtain a ritual release from their deceased husbandAfs brother (levirate marriage) in order to re-marry. According to IRAC, those wanting a non-Orthodox religious ceremony simply have no choice in Israel.

Finding a way out

A large section of Israel’s population - particularly the youth - perceive current marriage laws as religious coercion, and according to IRAC reports, 25% of all Israeli young couples look for, and find, alternative forms of marriage, which include refraining from marriage altogether, conducting unrecognised private religious ceremonies, or by travelling abroad for a civil marriage.

According to statistics, one in five couples choose the last option, creating a niche market for travel agents, who now offer marriage packages. Most couples fly to nearby Cyprus, and then register their marriages with the Israeli government on their return.

Until there is fundamental change, which addresses the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, marriages of young people like Gili and Sagi will continue to remain in limbo, and Palestinian families will remain torn apart, in an ethnic divide not of their making.

Suraya Dadoo is a researcher with Media Review Network ( an advocacy group based in Pretoria, South Africa.