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Op-Ed: Proposed civil marriage bill in Israel misses mark

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JERUSALEM (JTA) — The promoters of Israel’s new bill for civil marriage for those without religion are hurrying to present it as a significant and historical legal breakthrough, but actually it’s nothing other than political trickery.

According to the proposed legislation, couples that do not belong to any of the recognized religions in Israel will 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.

Practically, however, this law will fail to achieve its intended goal and will not provide a solution to the depressing problem of tens of thousands of couples who may not wed because they don’t fit the narrow parameters allowed by the state.

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 still will 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 will 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.

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.)

What an absurdity in the state of the Jewish people that 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 civil unions, couples must wait until 18 months have passed from the moment they register as a couple in order to enjoy the rights that married couples receive immediately, such as receiving an inheritance, adoption or naturalization.

The supporters of this initiative insist that it’s a crack in the walls of the Orthodox monopoly and in the future the crack will expand further. A closer reading of the legislation exposes the rift between the claims of its supporters and the sad reality of its potential outcomes.

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

This law will 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 speaking about more creative ways to solve this urgent issue.

Every person should have the right to marry as they choose and in a way that fits with their conscious.

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

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