At first glance, the headlines were heartening: “In first, Israel recognizes three civil marriages performed online” and “Couples marry online … beat lack of civil marriages in Israel.”
But the marriages the headlines reported were not the result of some major change in Israeli law or religious custom. Rather, they were in reaction to the recent recognition by Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority of three civil marriages, mostly by accident.
Under current law, Israel only allows marriage between members of the same faith, and only in accordance with applicable religious law. For Jewish couples that marry in Israel, that means that their marriages must be conducted under the auspices of the haredi-controlled rabbinate. Civil marriage is not available.
For many years, thousands of frustrated Israelis — particularly those with non-Orthodox or secular inclination — traveled to Cyprus (or elsewhere) to be married in a civil ceremony, and returned to Israel with certified documentation of a state-authorized marriage, which was then recognized and accepted by Israel.
During the pandemic, international travel has been more difficult. As a result, many Israelis were forced to delay their planned weddings. But three couples discovered that they could marry online, via Zoom, through the state of Utah. They followed through, and submitted their documentation — marriage certifications from the state of Utah — to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, which recognized the unions.
The three Israeli couples — including one lesbian couple — discovered quite a loophole. When the online civil marriages were reported by Israel’s Kan Bet public radio, the Population Authority backtracked and claimed that its acceptance of the Utah marriages was a mistake.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, of the haredi Shas party, has sought to control the issue. He has ordered the Population Authority to stop processing similar applications immediately. While there are no plans announced to reverse the three marriage certifications, it is still possible that the “mistake” by the Population Authority will lead the long-simmering battle over civil marriage to Israel’s Supreme Court, where the legal issue should be decided.
Over the past several years, there have been efforts in Israel through a coalition of Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and secular Israelis to address the desire for a civil marriage alternative in Israel, as well as authorization for consenting Jewish Israelis to be married in a non-Orthodox ceremony. Those efforts have gained little traction, since they fell victim to Israel’s familiar politically driven coalition politics, which have ceded control of the rabbinate to haredi parties. The haredi rabbinate has no interest in empowering non-Orthodox solutions to personal status issues.
The three internet marriage cases present an interesting opportunity to address the issue of civil marriage through the courts, rather than through the frustrating and tone- deaf political process. That would be a good thing — because, after all, marriage choice by consenting adults is, in the first instance, a legal question, rather than a political or religious one.