When Israeli couple Rinat and Roman Gerber decided to get married, they knew their first stop would be a travel agency rather than their local synagogue or town hall.
Although both consider themselves Jewish, they could not get married in Israel because the state only recognises religious weddings. For Israeli Jews, that means conforming to Halacha – Orthodox Jewish law – which does not recognise Roman as Jewish because his mother is not Jewish.
“We went to a travel agent offering package marriage deals. They told us what documents to bring and offered us Prague in the Czech Republic or Cyprus, which, at less than US$1,000, was cheaper,” said Rinat, a 27-year-old assistant professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
“We went to Cyprus with 10 other couples, mostly from the former Soviet countries. It can’t be possible that we are citizens of Israel but we can’t marry here. It’s a basic human right.”
Israel’s Law of Return allows anyone with a Jewish grandparent to move to Israel and become an Israeli citizen. Rinat and Roman were among one million people from the former Soviet Union to take advantage of this law after the collapse of communism, arriving from Lithuania in 1995.
But Israel has devolved all responsibility for marriages within its borders to the religious authorities of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths – leaving about 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union unable to have a recognised marriage in Israel.
“These immigrants are Jewish according to the Law of Return but not [according to the law of Halacha]. They come to Israel and serve in the army but are denied marriage,” said Zamira Segev, coordinator of the Forum for Freedom of Choice in Marriage.
For Jews, there is no alternative in Israel to an Orthodox marriage. Civil marriages between Jews or people of different faiths are not officially recognised, she said.
“In all the free world people can get a civil marriage. This is impossible in Israel. But civil marriages carried out abroad are recognised here – it’s insane,” said Segev.
“Jews who follow the Reform or Conservative movements rather than the Orthodox also cannot get married [in Israel]. They are denied their freedom of religion.”
About 7,000 Israelis get married in Cyprus each year – more than the number of Cypriots – in what has become a lucrative industry for the Mediterranean island, Segev said.
There is little prospect of a wholesale change in the law because of opposition from religious Jewish political parties, which view Halacha as a vital buffer against the assimilation of non-Jews.
Although only a minority of Israelis follow Orthodox Judaism, religious Jewish parties play a pivotal role in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. For the Shas party, which is part of the coalition, keeping marriage an orthodox Jewish affair is a cornerstone of its policy.
“Civil marriage will never exist in Israel. No one can bring it in if Shas is against it,” said Roei Lachmanovich, spokesman for Shas chairman Ilyahu Ishai.
“The Halacha protected the Jewish people for 3,000 years before we had a state. Now that we have a state, it does not mean we should stop the Halacha. There is Jewish and not Jewish and we want to protect the Jewish people for the future.”
The small number of mixed Jewish-Israeli and Muslim Arab-Israeli couples who want to tie the knot also find themselves with few options.
In most of these rare cases, the Jewish partner converts to Islam to enable the pair to marry under Islamic Shari’a law because conversion to Islam is easier than conversion to Judaism, Segev said.
However, an increasing number of Jewish Israelis are simply choosing to get married in ceremonies that are not recognised by the state, according to Nardy Grun, who described himself as a secular humanist rabbi and said he and his colleagues had carried out 10,000 such ceremonies since 2002.
“We do culturally Jewish ceremonies. It’s not such a big deal if the marriage is not recognised by the state. For example, if the couple has children then the woman would count as a single mother in the eyes of the state and receive financial benefits,” he said.
Segev said she understood why religious political parties were opposed to civil marriage. “I understand that Israel was founded as a Jewish state and so in theory one should do everything to keep it like that,” she said.
“But the immigrants who are not Halachically Jewish are part of us. And the fact is that non-Halachic marriages are still happening, but in Cyprus. So how does Israel gain?”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions