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Daily Life

Love and Marriage in Israel
Palestinian and Non-Orthodox Israelis Need Not Apply

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

By Suraya Dadoo
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
January/February 2004

In February of last year, Gili and Sagi, a young Israeli couple, were “married” at sea—a marriage not legally recognized by the State of Israel. Although both are Jewish, the couple objected to the only marriage option open to them in Israel: an Orthodox Jewish ceremony. Instead, they chose a marriage contract they drew up 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,” said Aneesa. “Forget getting his own Jerusalem ID—he is not even allowed to visit here.”

She cannot remember the last time she saw her husband.

For all their seeming differences, the two couples have one thing in common: unhappiness with current Israeli marriage laws. For, while touted as the only “democracy” in the Middle East, Israel does not offer its citizens the option of civil marriage. Since 1953, the only marriages recognized as legal by the Jewish state are Orthodox Jewish marriages, and civil marriages performed outside Israel. While it does not prohibit interfaith and other religious marriages, Israel does not recognize them as legal unions.

Aneesa’s problem stems from a new law passed by the Israeli Knesset in July which prohibits Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who marry Israeli Palestinians from obtaining residency permits and/or citizenship in Israel. Anyone else who marries an Israeli, however, is entitled to Israeli citizenship. Under the new law, only Palestinians are excluded from obtaining citizenship or residency.

This means that “Arab Israelis”—about 20 percent of the Israeli population—who marry Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip must choose between moving to the occupied territories, or living apart from their spouse, as is the case with Aneesa. Children will be affected, too: after the age of 12 they will be denied citizenship or residency and forced to move out of Israel.

According to Palestinian-American political activist Ali Abunimah, 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 of last year, Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, chairman of Israel’s National Security Council, claimed that by 2020 Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian areas would outnumber Jews by 55 to 45 percent.

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

The Israeli government contends that such a law is necessary for security reasons, while advocates of the current marriage laws claim they are necessary to preserve Jewish identity and life. Some analysts, however, have suggested that the new laws pertaining to Palestinian marriages reflect a sense of panic in some sections of Israeli society over demographic research that suggests that Jews—as recognized 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 favor any one religion or group. Pinhasi claims that in addition to marriages performed by religious office holders (Christian, Muslim, Jewish and others equally), Israeli law recognizes other associations—from civil marriages performed abroad, to agreements facilitated by “authorized” persons in Israel, to arrangements between same-sex partners. According to Pinhasi, “the current situation reflects the unique combination of tradition and modernity to be found in Israel.”

Not everyone agrees with that argument, however. According to Rabbi Charles Wallach, executive director of the South African Union for Progressive Judaism (SAUPJ), “there 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 miss.”

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

Gili and Sagi are typical examples of this trend. As they explained to Israeli TV and the press, they firmly objected to the Orthodox Jewish marriage ceremony and what they perceived as discrimination against the rights of the woman in the ketuba, the Orthodox marriage contract. Not wishing to have any association with the Orthodox Rabbinate, the couple 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.

Zamira Segev, Hemdat’s executive director and 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 Orthodox monopoly over marriage and divorce violates Israel’s Declaration of Independence, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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

According to IRAC, the Orthodox monopoly over marriage and divorce violates Israel’s Declaration of Independence protecting freedom of religion, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Israel is a signatory. Article 23 of the Covenant declares that men and women have the right to marry and to found a family, and are entitled to equal rights with regard to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. According to IRAC, Israel’s current marriage laws do not allow for this, and Israeli Jews wanting a non-Orthodox religious ceremony simply have no recourse.

Responding to claims that the current situation in Israel discriminates against non-Orthodox Jews, Rabbi Cyril Harris, chief rabbi of South Africa’s Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS), argued 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.”

In Harris’ opinion, Israel should adhere to traditional norms.

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

Demographic research suggests that this trend is accelerating. 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 halacha, 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 recognizes only Jewish marriages conducted according to Orthodox tradition. With secular and liberal Jews now constituting a majority of the Israeli population, the situation has become increasingly problematic.

According to halakhic law, a marriage can be terminated in two ways: the death of a spouse, or the issuing of a get (divorce). A husband can, in principle, refuse indefinitely to give a get, meaning his wife cannot remarry or have children. In addition, childless widows wishing to remarry must first obtain a ritual release from the brother of their deceased husband (levirate marriage).

A large segment of Israel’s population—particularly its youth—perceive the current marriage laws as religious coercion. According to IRAC reports, 25 percent of all Israeli young couples seek, and find, alternative forms of union. These include refraining from marriage altogether, conducting unrecognized private religious ceremonies, or traveling abroad for a civil marriage.

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

It is not surprising that Israel’s determination to be a “Jewish state” results in discrimination against its non-Jewish Palestinian citizens—who presumably can marry and raise a family with anyone not from the occupied territories without having to abandon their home. Even more bizarrely, however—assuming that a Jewish state would seek to accommodate all Jews—those who were born in Israel or who, born abroad, have the “right” to return there do not necessarily have the right to legally marry there.

To paraphrase George Orwell, in Israel some Jews apparently are more equal than others. All, however, are more equal than the Palestinians on whose land they live.

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