Civil Marriage to Arrive in Israel?

Civil marriage in Israel may have a new (sort-of) champion in Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, one of the two leading candidates for prime minister of Israel.

Last week, The Forward reported that Livni promised that if she wins in February, she will allow civil marriage for the 350,000 Russian-speaking immigrants and their children who are caught in the so-called “marriage trap.” In Israel, only the religious authorities have the legal authority to solemnize marriages. Because so many Russian Jews are unable to prove they have Jewish mothers, the chief rabbinate will not marry them.

Menahem Ben-Sasson, the chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, and a chief Lipni ally, said that the civil marriage provision would be “the first law I will put on the Knesset table,” if their party, Kadima, wins the election.

Israeli civil marriage activists were unenthusiastic about the news. It turns out that the promise only extends to the 350,000 Russian Jews who are unable to prove their Jewish maternity, and they will only be allowed to marry each other. Gilad Kariv, associate director of the Reform movement’s Israel lobbying arm, said the proposal will create a “ghetto of people who are not able to get married through Orthodox means.”

The proposal does not address the issue of civil marriage for those who wish to marry outside of their own faith. Ben-Sasson said Kadima will not push for the right to intermarry. “This is is the other side of the slippery slope,” he told The Forward, “and we are not ready to deal with it at the moment.”

But from afar, Livni’s promise–while clearly an electoral calculation intended to sway 750,000 Russian-speaking voters–is a small, important step in the right direction. Civil marriage has never existed in the 60-year history of Israel. Granting the Russians the right to civil marriage will only embolden other groups to lobby for their rights as well.

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One thought on “Civil Marriage to Arrive in Israel?

  1. I have always lobbied for greater inclusiveness in regards to the right to marry in the State of Israel. Just as frequently, my Orthodox colleagues have lobbied for more stringency in regards to this institution.

    Livni’s proposal could open the door just a crack to alternative viewpoints about marriage in Israel; coupled with the now (enormously) popular Russian-born politicians being elected in Israel’s regional and national elections, this may be all it takes for those doors to eventually swing wide open to marriages performed not only by civil authorities, but by officiants of other denominations, as well.

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