Late last year, something happened in the United Arab Emirates that never happened before in that Gulf state, yet it attracted little attention: A couple got married in a civil ceremony. The couple was Canadian. They are among the 90% of the UAE population that are residents, but not Emirati citizens. The marriage was made possible under a new law that allows civil law to govern how non-Muslim UAE residents may marry, divorce, get child custody and some other personal family matters — all of which were previously governed by Sharia law.
The new law is viewed as a big step forward for recognition and respect of personal rights in the UAE. It also brings the Emirates closer in line with international practice, making it even more appealing as a global destination. Which makes us wonder: Why isn’t the option of civil marriage available in Israel?
In virtually every area of life, Israel is by far the most progressive country in the Middle East. We see that in areas of free speech, the right to assemble, free and fair elections and civil rights. But when it comes to personal status issues, such as marriage and divorce, Israel is stuck in the past — in a time when the country was part of the Ottoman Empire and each religious community was overseen by its own authorities. And so it is today. Israel has never changed the arrangement. Muslims in Israel wed under Muslim authority; Christians under Christian authority; Druze under Druze authority. There are no sanctioned intermarriages. And, there are no civil marriages.
Jewish marriages in Israel fall under the authority of the haredi-controlled rabbinate. Their rules often bar non-rabbinate-sanctioned Jewish converts — as well as hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union or from Ethiopia, whose Jewish status is often in doubt — from getting married at all in the country. And same-sex marriage is completely out of the question. Many traditional or secular Israelis who don’t want to marry under the thumb of the religious bureaucracy leave the country to get married, often to Cyprus. Once outside the country, they can have a civil ceremony or a religious one that aligns more with their beliefs, and their union is fully recognized in Israel when they return. It’s almost as if crossing the border cleanses the marital union.
The situation in Israel needs to change. Civil marriage in Israel should be an option available to all Israelis. And this is precisely the kind of issue that is tailor made for the current ideological rainbow coalition (minus the haredi parties) of the Bennett-Lapid government. Allowance of civil marriage would step on no one’s toes. But it would free Israelis from the grip of the haredi rabbinate and eliminate the need for the two-step dodge of leaving the country to get married (civilly or religiously) and then returning to carry on life.
Israel can learn from its UAE cousins and do it better. UAE got its feet wet and allows non-Muslims to marry civilly. Israel should go further and allow civil marriage for all.