Michael Boyden

Civil marriage in Israel? Don’t hold your breath

Perhaps, because I live in Israel, I am less hopeful than Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is about the prospects of civil marriage coming to our country, and do not believe that President Obama’s declaration on gay marriage last week has any relevance in terms of what is happening in Israel. Therefore, I am relieved that, in his words, Rabbi Hammerman is not holding his breath!

Of course, I share his view that civil marriage is long overdue in Israel and that it is high time that the orthodox establishment’s iron fisted control over marriage and divorce was brought to an end.

However, his tempered optimism about what might take place now that Kadima has joined the coalition is based upon several assumptions that I would question.

I do not share the view that “Israel now has a government that is blackmail-proof.” This is not the first time that a coalition government has been formed that could in theory introduce legislation over the heads of the religious parties. However, experience would suggest that, even when in coalition, the major political players court the religious parties with an eye to the next elections.

I would equally question the view that “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.”

Long before President Obama publicly expressed his views on same sex marriage, Israel’s Supreme Court had already ruled back in December 1994 that El Al was legally obligated to extend the same benefits to the partners of gay employees as it did to heterosexuals.

The ruling followed a five-year court battle by flight attendant Jonathan Danilovitz to force Israel’s national carrier to grant him an annual complimentary flight with his male partner.

None of this had anything whatsoever to do with “branding” or with an eye to what liberal Jews in North America might think. It rather reflected the ongoing dynamic of a Knesset hamstrung by the religious parties and a Supreme Court seeking to implement justice and enforce democratic values.

As Rabbi Hammerman correctly points out, the conversions he performs in North America are recognized in Israel. However, many do not realise that the same is also true of those that Reform and Conservative rabbinical courts perform in Israel.

The reason for this is because it is not the (orthodox) rabbinical authorities that “control personal status” in matters of conversion here but rather the Ministry of the Interior, which is bound by Supreme Court rulings on the subject.

It is high time that there were a re-assessment in Israel of the so-called “status quo” in religious matters. It is already happening to the extent that the Supreme Court is able to influence affairs.

Only last week it ruled that a Reform rabbi should be entitled to remuneration from public funds in precisely the same way as orthodox rabbis are.

However, as Rabbi Hammerman quite rightly recognizes, the introduction of civil marriage in Israel requires the passage of legislation through the Knesset that would, in effect, overturn legislation dating back to 1953, which granted the (orthodox) rabbinical courts a monopoly in matters related to Jewish marriage and divorce in Israel.

Many Israelis would like to see this brought to an end, including the many thousands of couples who are forced to marry in civil ceremonies overseas each year in order to avoid having to deal with the orthodox authorities. However, neither Sharansky nor Lieberman, in spite of the large constituency that they represent, ever managed to break the “status quo”.

I don’t believe it is going to happen now and, so, like Rabbi Hammerman, I’m not holding my breath!


About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.