New bill would legalize civil marriage, extend right to gays

Groundbreaking Yesh Atid proposal comes under fire from Jewish Home, but sponsors insist it ‘is not an attack on halachic marriage’

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Newlyweds stroll down Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard (photo credit: Mama Photography)
Newlyweds stroll down Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard (photo credit: Mama Photography)

Fresh from the dramatic passage on Monday of the Tzohar bill allowing Israelis to choose their marriage registrar and rabbi, the Knesset is set to take up an even more sweeping reform in Israeli marriage law.

The Yesh Atid faction presented a bill on Tuesday that seeks to legalize, for the first time, non-religious marriage in Israel.

Currently, all Israeli marriages are legally valid only if they are conducted in formal state religious institutions, whether through the Jewish rabbinate, Muslim sharia institutions, Catholic canon courts or a handful of other recognized, state-funded religious denominations.

This legal situation, inherited from the Ottoman era, has meant that some 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants who have Jewish relatives and are eligible to immigrate to Israel as Jews under Israeli law cannot marry at all, as the rabbinate does not consider them Jews under Jewish law and will not perform a wedding service for them with either Jews or non-Jews. Similarly, non-Orthodox (and, more recently, some Orthodox) converts to Judaism have been unable to marry under Israeli law.

Until today, the only way for many of these Israelis to marry was to do so abroad.

The new bill, written primarily by MKs Ruth Calderon and Aliza Lavie, both from Yesh Atid, would create a completely secular, egalitarian marriage track that would grant couples the legal protections of marriage without forcing them to go through the state religious systems.

“We have no interest in challenging the religious establishment or other [political] parties,” Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said Tuesday. “Our own religious MKs, who include two rabbis [Education Minister Shai Piron and MK Dov Lipman], were intimately involved in writing the bill. Our only goal is to give every Israeli citizen – Jewish or non-Jewish, gay or straight – the opportunity to have their country recognize their right to love.”

The bill creates “a civil agreement for a shared life between two people,” according to Calderon.

Far from being “an attack on halachic marriage,” she said, the bill “does not overstep into the rabbinate’s territory. Its goal is to enable any couple that can’t or doesn’t want to marry in the rabbinate to live meaningful lives without losing their civil rights.”

The goal, Calderon concluded, “is to bring a bill that befits a Jewish, sane, welcoming state.”

Before the ink on the new bill had a chance to dry, criticism from more conservative MKs could be heard on Tuesday afternoon.

MK Yoni Chetboun of the Jewish Home party, for one, slammed the bill for attempting to introduce “civil marriage and homosexual marriage.” His response? “It’s not right and it won’t happen.”

The Jewish people “went through exile and pain, and established a state, because it has always accepted its past, its heritage, and maintained its uniqueness as a people. Initiatives like these are an attempt to divide the Jewish people into two nations. It simply won’t happen!”

Chetboun’s concern, shared by many ultra-Orthodox MKs and others, is that allowing non-halachic marriage could lead to marriages proscribed under Jewish law, and thus, in the next generation, to different groups of Jews who cannot marry each other.

The bill could face an uphill battle if the Jewish Home party decides to oppose it. The coalition agreement on which the current government was founded grants Jewish Home a veto for any changes to the status quo on religion and state.

But Yesh Atid officials are already insisting that the bill does not change the status quo, since it does not touch any power currently granted to religious authorities. It merely creates a parallel civil track that will be recognized for civil purposes.

This argument is no mere rhetoric. The bill painstakingly divides the new civil marriage registrar from the religious system, including excluding from civil marriage those who are already married through religious registrars.

Yesh Atid is strongly committed to the bill, say party officials. Instituting civil marriage was a key election promise made by the newly-founded party in January’s legislative elections. The final version submitted to the Knesset Presidency on Tuesday was signed by 13 MKs, all members of Yesh Atid.

Perhaps speaking for many Yesh Atid voters, MK Yoel Razbozov, a former Israeli judo champion, recalled his own overseas marriage on Tuesday.

“To serve in the army and represent Israel – that they let me do, but to marry – that the state kept from me,” Razbozov said. “In the end, I took my family to Cyprus, and purchased at great expense the basic right to ratify my love,” he added, referring to his civil marriage in Cyprus to his wife Irena.

“The Civil Marriage Bill we proposed today … will solve once and for all the problems encountered by those who want to ratify their relationship in this country without going through the rabbinate,” he said.

Yesh Atid hopes to pass the bill into law in the current session, officials said.

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