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Separation of marriage and state

November 6, 2010

There’s no option to have a civil marriage in Israel, meaning you either get married in a religious ceremony or you don’t get married. This probably doesn’t sound like a big deal to Americans, where religion is based on how you identify yourself and you can get married in a casual Christian ceremony with a reformed pastor even if you don’t really identify yourself as Christian. In Israel, however, you have to prove to the state that you believe what you believe, and if they disagree, their ruling trumps yours. This means if you don’t measure up to orthodox Jewish standards, “you may as well be Muslim,” as one official at the Ministry of the Interior told a not-Jewish-enough American friend of mine.

A significant percentage of the population in Israel was Jewish enough to qualify to immigrate here under the Law of Return — meaning they had a Jewish parent or grandparent — but they’re not Jewish enough to meet the Rabbinate’s definition of Jewish, and are therefore denied the right to be married in Israel. I don’t want to compare it to the gay marriage debate in the U.S., as I feel that would oversimplify a lot of social factors involved in American intolerance of homosexuality, but the similarity of the religious components involved is quite clear.

While it’s not that hard to get a marriage license next door in Cyprus or some other nearby country, it’s certainly not democratic to require people to do so because of how the state defines religion. This is where the term “Jewish democratic,” a phrase Prime Minister Netanyahu and other politicians here use over and over to describe Israel, makes my ears hurt. It’s just another way of saying this country is a democracy for Jewish people, but everyone else gets jerked around. And while that’s fine, seeing as how I chose to live here and don’t expect an entire country to change to make me more comfortable, it’s certainly not a democracy in my eyes. While it’s technically a democracy due to the government being elected by the people, it’s lacking some of the equality and freedom aspects that the definition carries in the rest of the world. Sure Israel is infinitely more democratic than most of the countries in this region, but that’s akin to being the skinniest kid at fat camp. It doesn’t really mean you’re skinny — you’re just surrounded by people that screw up your ability to put things into perspective.

But this week the Knesset approved a bill that says two Israelis who can officially prove they have no religious identity can now pay 600 shekels (about $170) and have their civil unions. As cool as that sounds, there are very few people who can prove to the government that they have no religion, so it won’t accomplish much on that end. But as the article says, this could be the first step in paving the way for making civil unions an option for everyone, even state-approved Jewish citizens, who doesn’t want to be married in a religious ceremony.

I don’t regret getting married in Maui. In fact, I’d recommend it to everyone. But for people who don’t want a small ceremony on a tropical island and dream of having a wedding ceremony at home with all their family and friends present, it’s not fair for the government to tell them no.

Walking on the beach after intercultural wedding ceremony in Maui

Our intercultural wedding last year

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Kimberly permalink
    November 12, 2010 7:42 pm

    That sounds backwards to me. I mean, if I understand what you are saying about civil unions there, Israel feels it’s better to have no religion if you’re not Jewish (i.e. It’s Jewish or nothing.)?

    On a side note, it also reminds me of a comedian on TV making a nice point about our civil unions. Once upon a time, it was illegal to marry interracially. The thought was “Make “them” marry “them, but don’t let “them” marry “us.” Now, however, when it comes to gay marriage in the states, the thought is don’t let “them” marry “them”, make “them” marry “us?” lol

    I’m thinking democratic governments should stick to what they know… nothing ; ) and let the important decisions be made by “us.”

    • November 12, 2010 8:19 pm

      Well when you put it that way, they do sound like they know nothing at all 🙂 In Israel, like just about all of the Middle East (though of course Israel doesn’t see itself as being Middle Eastern), religion is a lot more orthodox than in the Western world. It’s all or nothing — either you’re completely Jewish, or you’re not Jewish, period. And if you are Jewish enough to be deemed Jewish by the government, you better not marry outside your religion. If you’re bound and determined to do so, you have to leave the country, but it’s still somewhat taboo even today. “We’ get to make the decision, but “they” make it really, really inconvenient and unpleasant!

      • Kimberly permalink
        November 16, 2010 8:36 pm

        That makes sense. “You’re either Jewish or you’re not Jewish.” Not that it makes sense to ignore the reality of the world being full of other religions, but it makes sense about the marriage requirements when your brain is programmed to think so black and white.

  2. Serge permalink
    December 20, 2010 7:10 am

    I don’t think it’s just a Jewish thing — in Israel marriage is devolved to the various religions that have an interface with the state. So the Muslim and Christian authorities have the same role with regard to marriages within their “communities”.

    • December 20, 2010 8:52 am

      That’s a good point. I’m not sure how strict the respective authorities are in regards to marring individuals of different religions, or if the government itself is behind that particular rule. Perhaps it’s all the same.

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