I recently ended a three-week trip to the United States and returned home to Israel. This was a particularly emotional trip, as I was in Boston the day of Marathon. I saw firsthand how resilient the people of Boston are in a crisis. All of us in Israel send our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families.
I spoke at nearly a dozen synagogues and universities during my three weeks in the United States. This trip was an opportunity for me to start explaining in person to our supporters about the Israel Religious Action Center’s campaign for equality in marriage. Social activists are pursuing this important issue on both sides of the pond, and I was thrilled by how our message was received.
There are a few key differences to this issue in America and in Israel. In the United States, many are struggling to give same-sex couples the right to marry, and in Israel, in addition to fighting for same-sex marriage, we are trying to extend the right to marriage to many people who would already enjoy the right to marry in the US. Under Israeli law, only state-sanctioned religious authorities are able to perform marriage ceremonies and grant a divorce, and they determine who is “Jewish enough” for these services.
The fact that there is no civil marriage option in Israel has particularly negative consequences for mixed-heritage couples, same-sex couples and for women in general. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are unable or unwilling to get married in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony. Hundreds of thousands who did get married are adversely affected by the Orthodox Rabbinate’s divorce procedures, which treat women as second-class citizens by not allowing them to testify in court or to get a divorce unless their husband agrees.
Surveys in Israel show that a majority of Israelis believe that there should be an option for civil marriage in Israel; a recent poll found that 59 percent of Israeli Jews favored this position. However, due to the influence of ultra-Orthodox political parties the idea of changing the status quo is a non-starter.
Marriage is not a luxury that should be granted to a select few who meet one group’s narrow definition of “who is a Jew.” Even prominent Orthodox rabbis, like the current Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, have admitted that too many Israelis are going abroad to marry. It is as if we all understand that something must change.
We’re going to make this year the year of marriage equality in Israel. We are preparing aggressive campaigns for the courts, the Knesset, and the media to win the hearts and minds of the remaining 41% of Israelis who do not yet see a need for choice in marriage. This new Knesset may be a historic opportunity for us. We want Israeli lawmakers to understand that they cannot keep the right to marry and divorce in the hands of one extreme minority.
Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel.