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Divorce is also controlled by a sectarian monopoly. If a Jewish woman in Israel wants to divorce her husband she is required to go through the Orthodox rabbinical courts. If her husband does not consent, then her divorce remains pending indefinitely, complicating the prospects of re-marriage. However, if civil divorce were an option, then these women would not be in legal limbo to the already incredibly stressful divorce process.
The authority given to Orthodox rabbinical courts in Israel regarding issues of personal status, particularly marriage, weakens the social fabric of the state by causing disunity, contempt for the law, and even hostility.
Twenty percent of the Israeli population is made up of minority group members whose marriages are similarly governed by the religious authorities of each faith, and who, as a result, face marital issues of their own. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are denied the right to marry solely based on issues of religion. If a person can become a bar or bat mitzvah in Israel, or be buried in Israel, they should be able to marry in Israel regardless of how stringently they observe Jewish law.
But there is momentum building for change, with the newly formed Knesset showing support for the idea. A number of the new members of Knesset have advocated strongly for civil marriage. Out of respect for democratic values and civil liberties, Israel has an obligation to establish civil marriage not just for the Jews and all the other citizens in Israel, but on behalf of K’lal Yisrael, the entire people of Israel.
Creating a mechanism for civil marriage in Israel and sanctioning marriage under alternative religious avenues is paramount to the future of the Jewish state. Such measures will not only deepen respect for Jewish and religious diversity, they will enhance the principles of democracy in Israel and strengthen the ties between Israel and world Jewry.
Nancy K. Kaufman is CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women