Meretz "wedding" in Tel Aviv
Meretz "wedding" in Tel Aviv Flash 90

Eleven Labor MKs, led by by Shelly Yechimovich, Eitan Cabel, and Avishai Braverman on Thursday submitted a proposal to allow civil marriage in Israel. The law, in preparation for over a year, would set up a mechanism whereby civil marriages conducted in Israel would be recognized by the state, along with religious marriages.

The law was authored by Labor MKs working with the Center for Religious Reform. According to Yechimovich, “the purpose of the law is to enable all couples to marry, without regard to their gender, religion, or civil standing. We want to allow them to formally marry in Israel and receive all their civil rights.

Currently, marriages conducted within the state of Israel are recognized by the government only if conducted within the framework of a recognized religion, which for Jewish couples requires them to appear before a rabbi licensed by the Rabbinate to conduct weddings, along with two witnesses, as part of the traditional Jewish ceremony. 

Due to international conventions, Israel must recognize marriage licenses conducted abroad, so secular couples who do not wish to marry under the Rabbinate's aegis (or under any other religious authority) often travel to Cyprus, where they get married and return home the same day with a legally recognized marriage certificate. Among those are numerous couples in which one member is a convert whose Jewish background is not clear, a group that includes many Russian immigrants to Israel. Other couples who opt for such an arrangement include same-sex couples, Jews who wish to marry non-Jews but do not want a non-Jewish religious wedding ceremony, couples who do not affiliate with any religion, and those who wish to enter other marriages prohibited by their religion.

Several laws recognizing civil unions have been introduced in the Knesset in recent years. It should be noted, however, that the vast majority of Israeli Jews marry in the traditional Jewish ceremony in Israel.

Most religious MKs, as well as the Rabbinate, oppose the law. In a recent Facebook posting,

MK Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) vowed to act immediately to prevent legalization of civil marriages. “Civil marriage violates the Jewish values which are the foundation of the State of Israel," Ariel wrote in a recent Facebook post. "We are talking about a religious [issue] which has not been agreed upon, has not been signed, and will go nowhere except to make headlines. Anyone who thinks he can impose such legislation harms the Jewish identity of the State of Israel [. . .] I will act immediately to ensure that the bill falls [through]." His comments have been echoed by other Jewish Home MKs, including Yoni Chetboun.

However, some Orthodox rabbis have said that instituting civil marriage might be something religious Jews could live with. Rabbi Binyamin Lau, best known as the biographer of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef z”tl, said at a recent event that he favored the idea of a civil union as an alternative for couples who did not want to marry under the Rabbinate's procedures, as a way of reducing the hostility secular Israelis often feel for Judaism.

“We cannot accept the situation where large parts of the population are unable to marry,” he said. “The system in this country has already made Israelis pay a high price, as secular hatred of religion has grown. The proposed law will enable couples to form a relationship, and improve communications between secular and religious Israelis. Most of those getting married will continue to do so in the traditional manner,” he continued, “because Israel is a traditional society. Those who do not want to do so, or cannot, will choose the route of civil union, and thus much of the hatred of religion by secular Israelis will disappear,” he added.

According to the Labor MKs, their bill “is not designed to abrogate current arrangements for marriage, but to add to them. Those who wish to will be able to marry in the way that marriages are conducted today. The purpose of the law is to ensure that all Israelis will have the right to marry according to their conscience.”