Civil marriage. 'A collective sigh of relief that things are finally starting to change'
Photo: Avigail Uzi

An important first step

Civil marriage bill significant despite being wholly insufficient

The Bill for Civil Marriage in Israel, which went to second and third readings Tuesday in the Knesset's Law Committee, sounds like much more than it is. To be clear, it’s not really a bill to introduce civil marriage in Israel in general, but rather to provide a way for people “without religion” to register their unions.


No wonder the haredi parties are not opposed - it does not even talk about Jews. Nevertheless, this may still be an important, if somewhat weak, first step.


When Israel was occupied by the Turks in the 1800s, local inhabitants were given a choice of three places to register their marriages: Jewish courts, Muslim courts, or Christian courts. Bizarrely enough, this is the system that has remained all these years, throughout all the changes of the 20th century, civil rights movements, modernization, globalization, mass communication, and the Internet. The world has moved so unbelievably fast over the past 100 years, and yet this archaic Ottoman bureaucratic system for marriage and divorce has remained firmly in place, stoically defended by religious conservatives and fundamentalists in all religions. Remarkable, really.


This would all be a nifty little quirk of history if not for all the real lives at stake. This is the system that keeps thousands of women trapped in unwanted marriages, chained to men who hurt them, unable to move on and have a family. It’s also the system that scrutinizes the Jewish identities of men and women everywhere - their own and their parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ identities. People are marked, measured and stamped “Jew” or “Not Jew” based on moods, whims and political needs of particular judges.


There are thousands of couples forced to get married outside of Israel for one bit of minutiae or another, and who undergo humiliating and demeaning processes along the way. And we haven’t even started talking about issues like single-sex couples or marriage between people of different religions. It’s an antiquated quagmire of a system that plays with people’s lives, choices and identities.


A new concept

Anyone who has encountered the real suffering brought on by this system cannot help but be in favor of civil marriage in Israel. I suppose I should qualify that: Anyone who has encountered this system and has a beating heart cannot help but be moved. Although I’m not entirely sure that all religious court judges and haredi MKs fit into that category.


Nevertheless, we all know the political weight of this issue, a topic that David Ben Gurion himself handed over to the religious parties. I wonder if Ben Gurion understood the impact of this grand maneuver would have on the future of the Jewish people - marriages in Cyprus, an ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on all matters of personal status, masses of Israelis turning away from religion because of the rabbis. Maybe he thought it would be temporary. Or maybe he thought secular grass roots activism would make things right. Or maybe he was just a politician after all. Who knows. But the deal was done and now we’re all stuck.


So the fact that the Knesset committee pushed forward with the Civil Marriage bill should be a cause for celebration, a collective sigh of relief that things are finally starting to change. Yet most of the social action groups that attended the meeting voiced their opposition to the bill. This is because it only relates to those without religion, leaving 97% of the problematic issues completely unresolved.


As Joel Katz of Religion and State in Israel says, “Before the union is confirmed, the registrar will publish the details of the request and each religious court will have the opportunity to examine whether either member of the couple belongs to its community. If there is a dispute over the matter, the religious court will make the final decision…So, does this mean the Rabbinical Courts are now (also) determining ‘Who is NOT a Jew’?”


Nevertheless, Batya Kahana-Dror, executive director of Mavoi Satum, is a bit more optimistic. “The bill, as weak as it is, introduces a brand new concept in Israel of civil marriage,” she said. “Now it will at least exist. That’s a very important step and we shouldn’t dismiss it. From here, we have a place to work from.”


Maybe it’s a case of glass half empty or half full. Or maybe, when our legislators begin to see how much this issue moves people, they may begin to show heart after all and promote real change.


To see Mavoi Satum’s position paper on civil marriage (in Hebrew), and to vote in the Poll, “Do you support civil marriage in Israel?” go to


פרסום ראשון: 10.15.09, 00:07
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