Proposed Israeli Law Amounts to No More Than Political Trickery

The promoters of Israel's new bill for civil marriage for those without religion are calling it a historical legal breakthrough, but actually it's nothing but political trickery.

According to the proposed legislation, couples that do not belong to any of the recognized religions in Israel would be able to register in a civil union and enjoy the same rights one would in a legal marriage. The bill supposedly would solve the troubles of 300,000 Israeli citizens who cannot marry in their land because technically they have no religion.

This law would not provide a solution to the problem of tens of thousands of couples who can't wed because they don't fit the parameters allowed by the state.

This problem was born in the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, wherein many olim fit the criteria of the Law of Return by having a Jewish father or grandparent but not a Jewish mother. Not identifying themselves as Christian, and not receiving official Jewish status from the state, they were classified as having no religion. (Ironically, religion in Russia was determined by the father.)

The biggest problem with the bill is that it applies only to couples in which neither partner has a religion. A couple in which one member is an immigrant whose Jewish status is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate and the other is a Jew still would not be able to marry. In order to have their marriage recognized by Israel, such couples would need to travel abroad and wed in a foreign country for Israel to recognize their union.

Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics says that of the 31,655 Israeli couples that were married outside of Israel from 2000 to 2005, only 1,219 couples (less than 4 percent) would have been able to benefit from this law. Nearly 90 percent of the immigrants who do not have a religious classification marry a Jewish spouse, meaning that the passage of this law would have little bearing on its intended population. As if that weren't enough, this law would create a blacklist of couples who do marry this way.

How absurd that in Israel a Hebrew-speaking couple can marry only after a public denial of their Jewish identities and connection to the Jewish people. This proposed law provides an unfitting solution and an opportunity missed.

Under these proposed civil unions, couples must wait until 18 months have passed from the moment they register in order to enjoy the rights that married couples can claim immediately, such as receiving an inheritance or naturalization.

Supporters of this initiative insist it's a crack in the Orthodox monopoly and in the future the crack would expand. A closer reading of the law exposes the rift between the claims of its supporters and the sad reality of its potential outcomes.

According to the proposal, the couples who would benefit from the law also would have to request permission from the Chief Rabbinate to affirm that they indeed are not Jewish. As if we haven't heard enough terrible stories of new immigrants having to jump through hoops to prove they are Jewish, this proposal would create more hurdles. Olim without an official religious status now would have to prove they are not Jewish. It would be the first time that Israeli legislation would give rabbinic courts power over Israel's non-Jewish citizens.

This law, if passed, would be the tombstone on the grave of the government's obligation to solve the problem of non-Orthodox marriage in Israel. It creates a dangerous illusion of progress at a time when we should be seeking more creative ways to solve this urgent issue.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv is the executive director of the Israeli Reform movement.



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