The Obama declaration on gay marriage, along with this week’s formation of a broad-based unity government in Israel, accelerates the possibility of civil marriage in Israel. Israeli opinion on this topic, like American opinion, appears to be liberalizing, albeit in fits and starts, and there is real hope that Israel will soon become a more pluralistic environment, Jewish in character but less beholden to the religious extreme.
It’s important to note that, in speaking of this complicated topic of gay marriage, there is no monolithic Jewish view and that so many of us have been, like the President, evolving.
Why might this week’s news speed up that process?
1) For one of the few times in its history, Israel now has a government that is blackmail-proof.
2) Plus, the impetus that led to this week’s political earthquake was the need to, at long last, integrate haredim into national service and the military. Right now it’s about the Tal Law, but ultimately it’s about Israel’s readiness to finally begin reassessing the “status quo” arrangements dating from state’s founding. The status quo is on shaky ground already, with the debate over Shabbat bus service in Tel Aviv. While the Tal Law is in some ways unique, it also could be the first of many dominoes to fall in a national reassessment of the role of religious authority in a democratic state.
3) Add to that the curious position the LGBT community has in Israel. Shunned by the rabbinic authorities, which control marriage, they are not allowed to marry. But the state maintains a very liberal approach to gay rights, in large part because it helps Israel’s “brand” both diplomatically and economically in appealing to liberals abroad, especially in the US. And it’s worked, despite the occasional backlash. No less a figure than liberal icon Barney Frank has championed Israel’s gay rights record, and Tel Aviv was recently named the world’s best gay city.
4) All marriages performed abroad are accepted by the state, including gay marriages — similar to the way conversions are handled. A marriage or conversion I perform in America is automatically accepted in Israel (for now, unless the Rotem Bill once again rears its ugly head). But one I perform in Israel will not be accepted, because the rabbinic authorities control personal status. Inevitably, this inconsistency needs to be rectified. It is only a matter of time before the forces coalesce to allow civil marriage in Israel, gay or straight, Jewish, non-Jewish or mixed. The forces are all in place, including the Russian immigrants, the secular parties and, because of this need to sustain the liberal brand when it comes LGBTs, even Netanyahu.
5) As gay marriage becomes increasingly acceptable to Americans — and national polling trends are clearly and dramatically heading in that direction — Israeli leaders will increasingly see the light, in order to placate liberal American Jews and Christians. Conservatives are already loyal to Israel and will not be turned off should Israel allow civil marriage — it is the liberals who need to be convinced. See how the Obama declaration has already sparked debate in the Knesset. This will increase the momentum for civil marriage in Israel. With a blackmail-proof government dominated by secular parties on the left and right, it might even happen…gasp…soon.
Thanks to President Obama, I may get to perform state-sanctioned weddings in Israel yet!
But I’m not holding my breath….