This article was originally published in Hebrew on Ynet and has been translated by Hiddush:
Proposed legislation would create ‘leper caste’ of second-class citizens who are allowed to marry only among themselves
By Uri Regev • Hiddush.org
The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee has begun preparing the bill on civil union for religiously unaffiliated people for its second and third plenum readings. The proposed law seeks to institute civil registration of unions in Israel – as a shabby marriage substitute strictly for people without any religious identity.
Sadly, many of the Knesset members will not hesitate to raise their hands in favor of the bill. Contrary to the false pretense being created by the coalition, not only does this bill fail to improve the state of human rights in Israel, but it actually makes matters worse. If passed, this bill will create a new caste of non-Jewish lepers, second-class citizens who shall be permitted by the state to marry only each other.
The monopoly the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts hold over marriage and divorce by Jews results in a severe violation of the fundamental human right to establish a family. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens cannot wed in their own country. Whether you are one of the more than 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose mother or grandmother was not Jewish, or a convert from the United States who underwent a Reform or Conservative conversion, or a secular Israeli Jewish man who is a Cohen and has fallen in love with a divorced woman, or even if you simply want to have an egalitarian civil ceremony – Israel sends you to get married abroad.
There is no other country in the democratic world with marriage and divorce laws that grant the religious establishment such control over the freedom to marry, and such capacity for abusing an individual’s private life. Laws of this nature are indeed familiar in quite a few countries, mainly those governed by religious law in the radical Islamic world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates: “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.” Israel knowingly violates this declaration.
Several bills that went a great deal further than the present one, in seeking to apply civil union to the entire population, were submitted previously. They were torpedoed by the ultra-Orthodox parties. The intentions of those submitting the bills were desirable, but their actions were not.
Let us be clear: Civil union is not marriage but rather a second-rate substitute for marriage. In other countries similar arrangements are available for couples who do not wish to get married, and for same-sex couples for whom the country does not sanction marriage. Anyone who peruses the explanatory preamble to the present bill will not find this simple truth. Evidently the Ministry of Justice, which prepared the bill, did not care to confuse the Knesset members with the facts. But to the proposers of this bill we say: There is no room to sentence first-class citizens to a second-rate ersatz marriage.
Since the issue is not one of marriage at all, many thought the rabbis would be delighted to place this means at the disposal of the general public, and thereby alleviate major halakhic problems along the lines of mamzerut (the status of offspring born as a result of relationships forbidden in Judaism), adultery, and aginut (a situation in which a woman cannot remarry because her husband refuses to grant her a bill of divorce, or his whereabouts are unknown). However, the anticipation of good will on the part of the rabbinical establishment turned out to be vastly misplaced. Even this questionable substitute was perceived as too liberal for their liking. And so the government got back on its hands and knees, and submitted the present bill.
The bill presumes to provide a “solution” for the marriage of some 300,000 immigrants who belong to families of Jews but are not themselves Jewish according to halakha. This is a baseless presumption. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the annual number of marriages between two people without any religious affiliation is a mere 200 or so. It stands to reason that many of these would prefer real nuptials abroad to “pseudo marriage” in Israel.
We are therefore left to wonder what exactly is hiding behind this bill: Is it an Israbluff, an attempt to present the initiative as a breakthrough and solution for the many when it really offers dubious and small comfort for the few? And perhaps those behind the legislative initiative think that now, once the law has been passed, it will be possible to place the numerous people without religious affiliation into a juridical detention camp, to compel them to marry one another, and to perpetuate ad infinitum their foreignness and difference from the rest of Israel’s residents whose Judaism the rabbinate recognizes.
That way they will remain without any succor for their foreignness, since the rabbinate also refuses to open the gates of conversion to them. Regardless of whether we are talking about a vicious legislative proposal or one that is futile and pointless – it is clear that the bill up for vote in the Knesset is an indecent proposal.
We can but remind the legislators of the promise of freedom of religion and conscience guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence that Established the State of Israel, which has been waiting more than 61 years to be fulfilled. The vast majority of the public wants freedom of choice in marriage. It is high time the government listened to the public.
Rabbi Uri Regev, Esq. is the CEO of Hiddush – for religious freedom and equality