Sisterhood Blog

Lack of Passion Killed Israel's Civil Marriage Bill

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

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Israeli Jews whose choice of partner or form of ceremony doesn’t meet traditional Jewish legal requirements will have to continue to book a flight to Cyprus or Vegas to make their marriage legally valid in their own country, since marriage and divorce are going to remain in the hands of Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate for the foreseeable future.

A bill that would allow civil marriage in Israel went down in a crushing defeat in the Knesset on July 27. Only 17 Knesset members voted for it, with 40 members rejecting the bill that would have allowed Israelis to choose between civil marriage and religious marriage. The bill went down despite a vigorous public awareness campaign and lobbying effort launched in the spring stressing the importance of making it possible for all citizens to “Marry and divorce in Israel according to their choice, faith, and conscience.”

But public opinion was never really the problem. It has been clear for years that a majority of Israelis think civil marriage should be an option for those who have trouble with the rabbinate or who simply don’t want an Orthodox ceremony. The most recent poll, a Tel Aviv University survey released the very same day the bill went down in defeat, found that “63% support the option of civil marriage, 25% oppose it and 12% did not respond.”

Sadly, in the reality of modern Israeli politics, majority opinion doesn’t necessarily translate into a Knesset victory, especially when it means fighting the very powerful and determined religious parties.

For the ultra-Orthodox parties, preventing civil marriage is a priority. For the other legislators, it isn’t something the public is passionate enough about for it to be worth confronting the powerful religious parties.

That lack of passion is, unfortunately, pretty evident. Although they are sympathetic and support civil marriage, it is extremely hard to get average Israelis worked up about making it a reality.

When I bring up the issue with Israeli friends, after they easily acknowledge the injustice of two Israeli citizens being unable to marry in their own country – as well as the absurdity of the fact that Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot perform legally valid marriages in the Jewish state, something else happens.

They shrug. Then they start in with the long list of economic and security issues that they consider far more pressing and important. Unlike the conflict with the Palestinians or the pocketbook economic issues that have recently brought Israelis into the streets to protest, there aren’t many who care about it deeply – perhaps because it doesn’t directly affect enough people.

Unless those fighting for the freedom to marry and divorce figure out a clever way to push the issue up the national priority list, the judges in Cyprus and Elvis impersonators who are wedding officiants in Vegas can rest easy. The business flowing to them from Israel will continue unabated.


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