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Couples marry online via State of Utah to beat lack of civil marriages in Israel

But after population authority recognizes the certificates, Interior Minister Deri blocks process, demands it be reviewed by senior officials

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A Jewish couple getting married. (Justin Oberman/Creative Commons)
Illustrative: A Jewish couple getting married. (Justin Oberman/Creative Commons)

Three Israeli couples who married online via the State of Utah in order to beat Israeli laws that don’t recognize civil marriages had their certificates accepted by the Population Immigration and Border Authority, opening the way for them to formally register as married, the Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday.

However, when Interior Minister Aryeh Deri heard of the loophole, he ordered that the registration process be stalled, even though in one case a lesbian couple had already been told that it was approved.

Yael, identified only by her first name, told Kan that she heard about the Utah online marriage program from a Facebook post. She said she was motivated by “a strong desire to get married and a lack of options on the ground.”

She and her partner married on November 20, opening the way for government benefits offered to recognized married couples.

“It adds a lot to your self-worth,” Yael said. “For years I lived under the shadow that I cannot get married in Israel, that I need to dedicate a lot of time and resources to leave the country in order to be recognized [as married].

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri in the Knesset building, on March 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Marriages in Israel are only recognized if conducted as a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim religious ceremony, while civil marriages conducted abroad are recognized by Israeli authorities, enabling the couple to register at the Interior Ministry as married. Israeli couples who don’t want to have a religious wedding, or who are unable to such as same-sex couples or mixed-religion partners, have in the past resorted to traveling abroad where they perform a civil marriage then return with the documents to register in Israel.

Utah State in February this year announced that it would recognize marriages conducted via the internet, even if the couples were not present in the state at the time. The three Israeli couples used the services of a US company. For an additional fee, they were able to obtain an apostille validation stamp for the marriage certificates provided by Utah state authorities.

They then presented the marriage certificates at various branches of PIBA, where clerks admitted that they had never encountered the method before and would need to verify the matter. On Sunday, one of the couples was told the certificates had been approved and on Tuesday the other two were given the same news, Kan reported. This enables them to be registered as married and gives them equivalent status to that of married heterosexual couples in Israeli bureaucracy.

PIBA, which is under the Interior Ministry, confirmed the developments, saying in a statement that “marriage certificates were presented from the State of Utah in the United States. The matter was examined with the relevant authorities and after confirmation was given that this was indeed a procedure recognized by the State of Utah, the marriage was approved for registration.”

But on Wednesday, Interior Minister Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which adamantly opposes civil marriage, ordered that the process be stopped.

“Recently, a number of applications for marriage registration were submitted without the issue being presented to the administrative and legal echelon of the Population and Immigration Authority,” a statement on behalf of Deri said.

The minister ordered the registration paused until the matter is presented to senior PIBA officials and until Deri himself makes a decision, the statement said.

Tzohar, a religious-Zionist organization that aims to bridge the gaps between secular and religious Israelis by finding alternatives to the rabbinate on matters like Jewish weddings, responded to the report in a statement that urged the rabbinical community “to provide a real and comprehensive answer to this painful challenge surrounding marriage.”

“It is critical that we find the appropriate solution that both preserves the unity of our people but also ensures that all couples are being afforded a compassionate and relevant response to their needs,” the group said.

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