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April 09, 2004 - Image 32

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-04-09

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

OTHER VIEWS

Israel Discriminates On Marriage

New York/JTA
mong the series of life-cycle
events — birth, bar/bat mitz-
vah, marriage and death — Jews
long have recognized marriage as a spe-
cial simchah, or occasion for joy.
Just ask the devoted readers of Jewish
and other metropolitan newspapers'
weddinab sections.
Unfortunately, the Jewish state seems
determined to extend its blessings for
these most basic and
important of personal
1. unions only so far.
Recently, Israel's
Knesset defeated two
bills that would finally
have allowed civil
marriages as well as
recognized religious
JASON
marriages performed
GITLIN
by Reform and
Point
Conservative rabbis.
The decision, which
wasn't even close, didn't just severely
wrong Israel's growing number of non-
Jewish and secular citizens. It also disap-
pointed and embarrassed non-Orthodox
Jews in the United States and those who
support Israel's claim as the Middle
East's only democratic, enlightened
nation.
Under current laws, couples who wish
legally to be wed in Israel must be mar-
ried in a religious ceremony, and one
conducted by a state-recognized clergy-
man. For Jews, that means only one
thing: an Orthodox rabbi.
If the couple is comprised of a Jew
and a non-Jew — an arrangement most
common among the country's Russian
immigrant population — or members of
a non-recognized faith or no faith at all,
it means they are completely out of luck.
For many Israelis, such requirements
simply are untenable. Consequently,
thousands of Israelis leave their home
country to get married abroad, most
often flying to nearby Cyprus. They
marry abroad either because they do not
qualify for wedlock — the state has
determined them not marriage-worthy
— or because they want to bypass the
religious establishment.
Israel's archaic approach to marriage
can be traced back to the state's estab-
lishment, when then-Prime Minister
David Ben-Gurion conceded authority
over religion and personal-status issues

A

Jason Gitlin, a graduate of New York
University's Center for Near Eastern
Studies, has written for the New Jersey
Jewish News, the Jewish Week, and
CBSNewYork.com

4/ 9
2004

32

— such as birth, marriage and divorce
— to the Orthodox Jewish establish-
ment.
Although evidence suggests that Ben-
Gurion believed this was a dwindling
population whose power would only
erode in the future, the opposite turned
out to be true.
Over time, Israel's haredi, (fervently
Orthodox) population not only failed to
wither, but it grew both in size and
political influence.
In Israel's last election, frustration over
perceived religious coercion and the dis-
criminatory practices of the state's reli-
gious political parties led to a backlash.
The result was that Shinui, a secularist
party that campaigned on curbing the
power of the Orthodox establishment,
went from seven Knesset seats to 15,
making it the third-largest party after
Likud and Labor.
In addition, advocates for a more plu-
ralistic approach to
Jewish life in Israel
gained widespread
attention in the 1990s
amid the "who is a Jew"
debate, which centered
on the religious author-
ity's refusal to recognize
Reform and Conservative conversions
performed in Israel.
So, in light of such developments,
how did our enlightened brethren vote?
As might sadly be expected, 58
Knesset members from Israel's religious
and right-wing parties — Likud, the
Nation Union, the National Religious
Party, Shas and United Torah Judaism
— voted against the bill to allow for
non-Orthodox marriage. Far more dis-
tressing was that only 28 Knesset mem-
bers from the secular and left-leaning
parties — Labor, Meretz, Shinui and the
Arab parties — voted in favor of the bill.
The biggest disappointments were
Shinui and Labor. Shinui, a partner in
the current governing coalition, lamely
cited a commitment by coalition minis-
ters not to vote against the official coali-
tion stand.
Despite trampling on the party's rai-
son d'etre, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid,
Shinui's party head and Israel's justice
minister, had the gall to gloat after the
vote that nine of his party's members —
just over half— voted in favor of the
bill while only seven of Labor's did.
For its part, Labor performed the
most dishonorably. Despite being in the
Knesset at the time of the vote, most of
the party's leaders did not even show up
for the session. Among those who decid-
GITLIN on page 33

Laws Preserve Jewish Identity

New York/JTA
n Israel, "personal-status" issues,
such as those related to marriage
and conversion, are the perennial
focus of social campaigns, legislative ini-
tiatives and good old-fashioned politics.
Often, though, when issues like con-
version, marriage or divorce are on the
agenda, what gets lost in all the heat and
noise is something recently pointed out
by Israel's former chief Ashkenazi rabbi,
Yisrael Meir Lau.
"After 55 years," Lau reminded an
audience at a recent conference in
Jerusalem, "the Knesset has not, to this
day, found the time to take five days and
discuss what exactly this Jewish state we
have created is meant to be."
"The words 'Jewish state,"' he went
on, "are mentioned 22 times in Israel's
Declaration of Independence — not
`state of the Jews,' but rather 'Jewish
state.' And yet the Knesset . has never
found the time to
define what that
means.
And so, in the
dearth of such
definition, what
happens is that
issues intricately
related to that truly fundamental one are
isolated and individually subjected to a
tug-of-war among an assortment of
Israeli social forces — both larger ones
like religious nationalists, haredim (fer-
vently Orthodox) and secularists, as well
as smaller ones like advocates for the
Reform, Conservative and
Reconstructionist movements.
Many factors are weighed, and many
interests vie to be accommodated in the
debates surrounding these important issues.
On kashrut, for example, there are
questions like: Should the Israel Defense
Forces serve only kosher food? Should
pork be imported to Israel? The debate
on conversion focuses on what standards,
if any, there should be for accepting as
Jewish someone not born so. The debate
on Shabbat grapples with questions like:
Should public transportation run on the
Jewish Sabbath? Should certain roads or
neighborhoods be closed to traffic on
Saturdays? Usually lost in the shuffle in
all these debates, however, is the import
of decisions on the larger issue of the
state's Jewish identity.
When it comes to marriage and
divorce for Jewish Israelis, things are even
more hairy — and the stakes are even
higher. Marriages, after all, can produce

I

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public
affairs at Agudath Israel of America.

children, and most indeed do.
So while it might seem like an innocu-
ous and good idea to expand the mar- .
riage and divorce options of Israelis, in
truth it is neither. Preserving traditional
Jewish marriage and divorce standards as
a common denominator is not a religious
luxury but a societal necessity. A smor-
gasbord of standards would be a recipe
for societal disaster.
By rejecting the proposed legislation to
authorize civil mar-
riage in Israel, the
Knesset helped ensure
that "marriage" will
continue to have uni-
form meaning for all
Israeli Jews; that chil-
dren born of Jewish
marriages in Israel will
RABBI AVI
be able to marry one
SHAFRAN
another without con-
Counterpoint
cern regarding issues
of Jewishness or legiti-
macy; and that Jews in Israel will remain
one people, united around a standard
that lends legitimate substance to the
Jewish character of the state.
To be sure, Israel is not a theocracy
And in fact, Israelis — non Jews and
Jews alike — are free to live their private
lives largely as they choose. But if the
Jewish identity of the state is to have any
meaning at all, it must reside at the very
least in its communal institutions.
If a Jew, for instance, wishes to marry a
non-Jew, the couple has the option of
marrying outside the country or simply
living together without the state's impri-
matur. Were the state to be compelled to
endorse their union officially, however, it
might gratify the couple, but it would
tear apart the very fabric of Israel's Jewish
identity.
And so it is with other Jewish laws —
whether dietary laws, Sabbath laws or
marriage laws. To challenge them as
incompatible with Israel's democratic
nature would be to eviscerate her Jewish
nature.
Do Jews — of any persuasion or belief
— really want to see an Israel where ham
and lobsters are served to Jewish youth in
military mess halls, or where traffic is as
heavy and stores as busy on Shabbat as
on Thursday, or where marriage is a mere
agreement between two parties, without
the gravity of any religious sanction?
Some might well say yes, and that is
their prerogative. But it is a simplistic
position, born of emotion and a myopic
focus on individual issues at the expense
of a larger, looming imperative: Israel's
Jewish identity. n

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