On Tuesday (which was also the festival of Purim), the Israeli Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed by the state against online marriages, leaving intact a previous lower court ruling that a marriage formalized abroad is to be considered to have taken place abroad even if the couple was physically present in Israel at the time and the ceremony took place via the internet; and that the Israeli Population Registry is obligated to record the couple as married even though ordinarily, they would be unable to marry on Israeli soil.
The ruling mainly affects so-called "Zoom weddings" conducted over the internet, with the service provided by the American state of Utah, for couples who cannot marry within Israel for a variety of reasons.
Civil marriage has never been legal in the State of Israel; the "status quo" established shortly after the state's founding included a stipulation that all marriages would be in accordance with Jewish Law (halakhah) and under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, based on a prior commitment by David Ben-Gurion in a letter written in 1947, "lest the House of Israel be divided in two," in order to preserve the integrity of the Jewish People. Marriages conducted abroad, however, can be registered in Israel and the couple is then officially recognized as married.
Throughout the years, certain types of couples have chosen to travel abroad in order to marry; however, during the COVID lockdown period, this option was largely unavailable, leading to the increasing popularity of the Utah-online option. In December 2020, the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority registered as married three couples who presented marriage certificates from Utah, despite the fact that they were in Israel at the time of the ceremony, prompting a fierce public debate on the issue.
Then-Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) immediately denounced the move, ordering the Population Authority to freeze any future registrations of Utah-Zoom marriages. The Hiddush organization (a progressive-leftist organization dedicated to promoting its version of religious freedom) promptly filed a petition against Deri and the Authority, in which it referred to around 150 couples waiting to have their unions accorded official recognition.
"Minister Rabbi Deri ... rejects the authority of the Supreme Court and violates the most basic values of democracy," Hiddush wrote at the time.
Over a year later, in July of 2022, Judge Efrat Fink of the Central District Court ruled that the Interior Ministry was obligated to register as married the couples concerned. Responding to Fink's decision, Minister Deri asked the Attorney-General, Gali Beharav-Miara, to intervene and suspend the ruling, noting that it was "inconceivable that fateful rulings that affect Israel's very character should be made by a single district court judge."
MK Avi Maoz (Noam) emphasized that the ruling "ignores policy that has been in effect for decades," and added that it "undermines the Jewish state, carrying out a quiet coup to make Israel a state of all its people [rather than a Jewish state]."
In November, almost immediately after the national elections, the government appealed the ruling, writing that: "As of this time, the legislative body [i.e. Knesset] has not made an arrangement that allows for civil marriages to be performed in Israel, and this decision should not be emptied of meaning by issuing a ruling that de facto allows for civil marriage in Israel via a foreign country while the couple is located in Israel and the wedding itself is held in Israel."
In this week's ruling, the Supreme Court overruled the government's objections, writing: "When we found that the question of where the wedding event occurred gave rise to extremely complex questions, questions that it is not appropriate for a registrar to decide on, and since there is no dispute that these couples have presented to the registrar the registration certificate of a marriage that was conducted according to the law in the state of Utah -- our conclusion is that it is the obligation of any registrar to register these couples as married."
MK Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) welcomed the ruling. "It's a good thing that the Supreme Court has resisted the religious coercion of Deri and his friends who are trying to lead us toward being a halakhic state," he said.
Attorney Uri Regev, director of Hiddush, responded: "We welcome this ruling of the Supreme Court which opens an additional channel for Israeli citizens and residents to use for getting married, in this reality in which the State of Israel is the only democracy in the Western world that denies its citizens freedom of marriage due to the demands of the religious parties."
According to Hiddush, 600 couples have already had their marriages registered in Utah, and the organization has vowed to "continue to spread awareness of this option that is simpler, faster, and cheaper" than a marriage under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, claiming that in doing so they are "fulfilling the promise inherent in the Declaration of Independence, of freedom of religion and conscience."
MK Gilad Kariv (Labor) also welcomed the Supreme Court ruling, saying that it "proves the important role played by the Supreme Court in protecting human rights in Israel. There is no doubt that if the judicial revolution comes to fruition, rulings like this will no longer be possible, which will lead to a dramatic strengthening of the Orthodox monopoly."
On the other side of the debate, MK Moshe Arbel (Shas) condemned the ruling. "The Supreme Court, in another political move, once again proved the necessity of the reforms. The Supreme Court's recognition, on Purim of all days, of civil marriages performed via Zoom, is a sad joke at the expense of all traditional, religious, and secular Israeli citizens alike and expresses more than anything their aim of creating a 'state of all its citizens' and erasing the state's Jewish identity."