Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage has drawn applause around the world, but gay people in Israel have a ways to go before they are allowed to marry. This isn't because of anti-gay sentiment, however. It is because there is no civil marriage in Israel. Marriage, along with divorce and other personal-status matters, lies in the hands of Muslim, Christian and (Orthodox) Jewish religious authorities. Liberal denominational rabbis who believe in performing same-sex marriages are barred from conducting weddings, period.
More than 300,000 Jews in Israel cannot marry at all; this includes gay people, as well as some immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not deemed to be Jewish under Jewish religious law. Nor can a Jew marry a Muslim or a Christian within the state's borders.
The absence of civil marriage in Israel has its challengers. Non-Orthodox rabbis and their followers would like to see their own rabbis granted the authority to conduct marriages, as they are across Europe and North America. According to a recent opinion poll, 78 per cent of Israeli Jews support civil unions or marriage. But just last week, two bills pushing for civil marriage were defeated in parliament.
The lack of separation between religion and state in Israel is ironic, given how secular Israeli society has been been historically. But like many long-standing arrangements, such as the British North America Act that stipulated that Ontario would finance Catholic schools but not those of other denominations, Israeli democracy has institutional ghosts that haunt it.
The power of the rabbinate derives from two main sources. The first is the holdover from first the Ottoman and then the British Mandate periods, under which personal-status issues were in the hands of local religious authorities; this practice was enshrined on the eve of Israel's independence by David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister. The second source of power lies in Israel's proportional representation system. Parties choose their own candidates who, because of the lack of geographic ridings, end up having little direct responsibility to their constituents. And with no party having ever gained a majority, coalition governments are the rule. As a result, religious parties have managed to exert more influence than their population numbers would suggest.
If the religious chokehold over personal-status matters were to eventually loosen, the clear winners would be non-Orthodox religious leaders, gay people, non-halachically recognized Jews and those who value a separation between religion and state as a matter of principle.
Among the losers would be far-right fringe groups such as Lehava (which seeks to disrupt romantic relationships between Arab men and Jewish women); critics who believe that Israel's lack of civil marriage is motivated by racist, anti-miscegenation impulses and who would be forced to revise their unproven assumptions and, more prosaically, wedding officiants abroad. While Israel does not have civil marriage, by international law it is required to – and does – recognize its citizens' marriages performed outside its borders. This convention has helped Israeli gay and lesbian couples who are among the 20,000 Israelis each year who go abroad to marry.
Israelis value their democracy. And while the state has done a decent job of protecting religious freedom, non-Orthodox Jews – and those who want freedom from religion altogether – deserve more.