Love And Marriage
By Suraya Dadoo
12 November 2003
In February last year, Gili and Sagi,
a young Israeli couple, were "married" at sea - a marriage
that was not legally recognised by the State of Israel. Although they
are both Jewish, the couple objected to the only marriage option open
to them in Israel: an Orthodox Jewish ceremony. Instead, they chose
a marriage contract that they drew up themselves, together with a lawyer,
thus rendering their union illegal.
On the other side
of the divide, Aneesa, an Arab Israeli, who holds a Jerusalem ID, married
a Jordanian three years ago. "Because he also carries a Gaza identity
card, he is not allowed in Jerusalem. Forget getting his own Jerusalem
ID, he is not even allowed to visit here," says Aneesa. She cannot
remember the last time she saw her husband.
For all the differences
that exist between these two couples, they share one major parallel:
both couples are unhappy with the current marriage laws in Israel. Paradoxically,
Israel is touted as the only "democracy" in the world that
does not offer its citizens the option of civil marriage. Since 1953,
only Orthodox Jewish marriages, and civil marriages performed outside
Israel, have been legally recognised by the Israeli state. While interfaith
and other religious marriages are not prohibited, they are also not
legally recognised by the state.
stems from the decision by Israel's parliament to pass a new law in
July, which prevents Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip
who marrying fellow Palestinians, whom the Israeli state had ethnically
defined as 'Arab Israeli's', from obtaining residency permits and/or
citizenship in Israel. Under the new law, Palestinians alone will be
excluded from obtaining citizenship or residency. Anyone else who marries
an Israeli will be entitled to Israeli citizenship.
This means that
'Arab Israelis', who make up about 20% of the population of Israel,
who marry Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip will either
have to move to the Occupied Territories, or live apart from their husband
or wife, as is the case with Aneesa. Children will be affected too:
from the age of 12 they will be denied citizenship or residency and
forced to move out of Israel.
According to Ali
Abunimah, a Palestinian political activist, the new marriage laws are
aimed at limiting the number of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship,
and consequently, political and economic rights within Israel. Abunimah's
claims were given substance, when, in June last year, the chairman of
Israel's National Security Council, Major-General Uzi Dayan, claimed
that by 2020 Arabs, in Israel and the Palestinian areas, would outnumber
Jews by 55 to 45 per cent.
member Zehava Gal-On called the new law "racist and discriminatory",
and it has even been compared to apartheid-era South African laws that
banned interracial marriages. International human rights groups such
as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also condemned
the law as racist.
contends that such a law is necessary for security reasons. Advocates
of the current marriage laws claim that it is necessary to preserve
Jewish identity and life, but some analysts have suggested that the
new laws pertaining to Palestinian marriages, have emerged amid a sense
of panic in some sections of Israeli society over demographic research
that suggests Jews - as recognised by the Orthodox rabbinate - could
be in a minority in Israel within 30 years.
representatives, however, deny this. According to Daniel Pinhasi, First
Secretary at the Israeli embassy in South Africa, Israeli law does not
favour any one religion or group. Pinhasi claims that in addition to
marriages performed by religious office holders (Christian, Muslim,
Jewish and others equally), the Israeli law recognizes other associations:
from civil marriages performed abroad, to agreements facilitated by
AgauthorizedAh persons in Israel, and onto arrangements between same
sex partners. According to Pinhasi, Agthe current situation reflects
the unique combination of tradition and modernity to be found in IsraelAh.
Not every agrees
with Pinhasi's view. According to Rabbi Charles Wallach, Executive Director
of the South African Union for Progressive Judaism (SAUPJ), Agthere
are many ordinary Israelis who see the traditional words and documents
used as not speaking to them. The growing equality between men and women
needs to have expression and it is that that many ordinary Israelis
missAh, said Wallach.
ring true when one considers the statistics: between 1975 and 1996 the
Jewish population grew by 57%, but there was a decline of 2% in the
number of Jewish couples who married under the Orthodox Rabbinate during
the same period.
Gili and Sagi are
typical examples of this. They told Israeli TV and the press that they
firmly objected to the Orthodox Jewish marriage ceremony and their perceived
discrimination against the rights of the woman in the ketuba - the Orthodox
marriage contract. The couple did not wish to have any association with
the Orthodox Rabbinate and drew up their own marriage contract. Their
symbolic, protest "marriage" on board a ship at sea, was organized
by the Forum for Freedom of Choice in Marriage, which is managed by
Hemdat, the Council for Freedom of Religion in Israel.
Denied a basic right
Zamira Segev, Hemdat's
executive director, and the coordinator of the Forum described Gili
and Sagi's "civil marriage" ceremony as "a protest against
the sad reality that there are no options in Israel for civil marriage
by couples who prefer that form of marriage... It is sad indeed that
we must resort to this form of media event to let the public know about
this serious denial of basic civil rights in Israeli society",
The Israel Religious
Action Centre (IRAC), a lobby group, in collaboration with other grass
roots organisations, pioneered the drafting of a constitutional freedom
of religion bill, which included the right to civil and non-Orthodox
marriage and divorce, that was recently rejected by the Knesset.
According to IRAC,
the Orthodox monopoly over marriage and divorce violates Israel's Declaration
of Independence protecting freedom of religion and the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Israel is a signatory.
Article 23 of the Covenant that declares that men and women have the
right to marry and to found a family, and are entitled to equal rights
as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. According to
IRAC, the current situation does not allow for this.
In responding to
claims that the current situation discriminates against non-Orthodox
Jews, Rabbi Cyril Harris, Chief Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues
(UOS) in South Africa, replied that it is "important to differentiate
between the view of the secularist who wishes no restrictions, and the
Orthodox who wish to perpetuate the laws of Judaism as given in the
Torah. Hence the answer is dependent on one's view of Israel as a truly
Jewish state." According to Harris, Israel should adhere to traditional
norms have called into question the religious affiliation of a significant
percentage of Israeli society. The last decade has witnessed massive
immigration - mostly migrants from the former Soviet Union. Citizens
without a religion constitute a large number of this group. It is estimated
that out of the 800 000 new immigrants from the former Soviet Union
that have come to Israel since 1989, approximately 30% are not Jewish
by Orthodox standards, according to Chief Rabbinate and Interior Ministry
suggests that this trend is continuing. According to Sergio Della Pergola,
head of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University
in Israel, of the 30 000 immigrants from eastern Europe, the former
Soviet Union and South America who arrived in Israel last year, over
half of those arriving under the 1950 Law of Return were not considered
Jewish according to halakha, or Orthodox rabbinical law.
The rules on marriage
are enforced by Israel's small, but influential, Orthodox community.
Drawing on Old Testament statutes, these rabbis argue that God recognises
only Jewish marriages conducted according to Orthodox tradition. With
secular and liberal Jews now constituting the majority of the Israeli
population, the situation has become increasingly problematic, as many
reject Orthodox traditions, mainly because they believe it discriminates
According to halakhic law (Jewish law), a marriage can conventionally
be terminated in two ways: the death of a spouse, or the issuing of
a get (divorce). A husband can, in principle, refuse to give a get indefinitely,
and the woman cannot remarry or have children. In addition, childless
widows must obtain a ritual release from their deceased husbandAfs brother
(levirate marriage) in order to re-marry. According to IRAC, those wanting
a non-Orthodox religious ceremony simply have no choice in Israel.
Finding a way out
A large section
of Israel's population - particularly the youth - perceive current marriage
laws as religious coercion, and according to IRAC reports, 25% of all
Israeli young couples look for, and find, alternative forms of marriage,
which include refraining from marriage altogether, conducting unrecognised
private religious ceremonies, or by travelling abroad for a civil marriage.
According to statistics,
one in five couples choose the last option, creating a niche market
for travel agents, who now offer marriage packages. Most couples fly
to nearby Cyprus, and then register their marriages with the Israeli
government on their return.
Until there is fundamental
change, which addresses the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
marriages of young people like Gili and Sagi will continue to remain
in limbo, and Palestinian families will remain torn apart, in an ethnic
divide not of their making.
Suraya Dadoo is a researcher with Media Review Network (www.mediareviewnet.com)
an advocacy group based in Pretoria, South Africa.