US women’s group urges Israeli civil weddings

National Council of Jewish Women decries Orthodox monopoly on marriage and divorce, urges Jewish pressure to effect change

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

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of the Reform movement in Israel, performs a Reform Jewish wedding ceremony in front of the Knesset, on March 18, 2013. To the left of the couple stands Labor party MK and secretary-general Hilik Bar. (photo credit: Flash90)
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of the Reform movement in Israel, performs a Reform Jewish wedding ceremony in front of the Knesset, on March 18, 2013. To the left of the couple stands Labor party MK and secretary-general Hilik Bar. (photo credit: Flash90)

NEW YORK – In the latest in a growing chorus of Diaspora Jewish groups looking to be heard on issues related to the Israeli religious status quo, an American Jewish women’s advocacy group has called on the Israeli government to adopt civil marriage and divorce.

The board of the New York-based National Council of Jewish Women unanimously adopted a resolution at its last meeting in March, made public on Monday, which called on the Israeli government to “take immediate measures to create a mechanism for civil marriage in Israel and to sanction marriage under alternative religious avenues.”

The statement decried “the monopoly of authority given to Orthodox rabbinical courts in Israel regarding issues of personal status, particularly marriage,” which it said “weakens rather than strengthens the state itself by causing disunity, disrespect for the law, and even hostility among Israelis and between Israel and Jews abroad.”

The latest statement is a signal of the growing confidence with which American Jewish groups are beginning to tackle issues related to Israel’s religious status quo.

For its part, NCJW has said it is committed to pushing the issue of women’s equality in Israel squarely onto the American Jewish agenda.

NCJW CEO Nancy Kaufman (photo credit: Ron Sachs)
NCJW CEO Nancy Kaufman (photo credit: Ron Sachs)

“We’re asking organizations to sign on,” explained NCJW CEO Nancy Kaufman — especially organizations affiliated with the Task Force on Gender Equality in Israel, a coalition of some 20 US Jewish groups that work to support women’s rights and equality in Israel.

In 2011, the NCJW was one of the architects of the task force, which includes the liberal religious streams, defense organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, and groups affiliated with communal federations, such as the Israel Action Network.

At the task force’s last meeting on March 23, just three days after NCJW’s board took the vote on civil marriage, “we had a conversation about the next step.”

NCJW is not a large organization – it took in just over $6 million in 2011 according to its annual report – but it seems to believe it can make up for what it lacks in size through sheer activity. In January, it announced grants to seven organizations in Israel, six of them dealing with “gender segregation” and the seventh a group that supports gay youth. The grants were followed by a trip to Israel for American women’s rights groups in February, organized jointly with the Israel Action Network.

The NCJW statement makes a detailed case against the lack of civil marriage in Israel.

“Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are denied the right of marriage solely based on issues of religion,” it said.

“Among those affected by the rule of rabbinical courts are: Approximately 350,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union (who gained citizenship under the Law of Return) whose mother or grandmother is not halachically Jewish; all diaspora Jews who are eligible to obtain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return but who, nevertheless, may not be recognized as Jews by the Chief Rabbinate because of non-Orthodox conversions and, therefore, cannot marry; any couple in which the bride is a divorcee and the groom’s name is derived from the traditional priestly caste (eg. Cohen, Katz, Kaplan, Azoulay, etc.); individuals who have been declared mamzerim (illegitimate by a religious court, such as children born from a second relationship after the first marriage was not terminated by a halachic get (writ of divorce), unless they marry other mamzerim; and same-sex couples or couples of different religions who are not allowed to marry each other in Israel but must marry elsewhere in order for the marriage to be registered by the state.”

It is untenable to maintain a system that denies such relationships the right to marry, the group charged.

The institution of civil marriage “will not only deepen respect for Jewish and religious diversity,” but will “enhance the principles of democracy in Israel and strengthen the ties between Israel and world Jewry.”

Kaufman recognizes the sensitivities of such a declaration.

“We’re an American organization,” she notes, “so we respect the fact that the Israeli organizations will have to advance this. To the extent that it’s possible, [our job] is to get American organizations to put this on the agenda, whether at the [President’s] Conference, the [JFNA] General Assembly in Israel next year… We want this to be raised. We think it’s time.”

The declaration, she vowed, “was the beginning of the process. We’ve just begun.”

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