Jewish Journal

Israel’s new ‘covenantal partnership’ bill would legalize gay marriage

by Simone Wilson

November 1, 2013 | 11:55 am

Well here's one way to legalize gay marriage, without even really having to mention gays, or marriage: Introduce a law that allows any couple, regardless of religion or gender, to obtain a "covenantal partnership" from the state.

This approach may only be possible in Israel, a nation built on religion but aspiring to the ideals of Western democracy. Current marriage law can't hold up forever: It quite insanely requires that all Jewish marriages be performed under the Rabbinate by a certain set of Orthodox rabbis, and doesn't allow for inter-religious marriages — much less gay ones. (Christians and Muslims can be married in Israel, too, under similarly strict religious rules.) This has set in motion a ridiculous system wherein hordes of betrothed Israelis fly off to nearby Cyprus, or any other country where a stodgy old Orthodox dude won't ruin their big day, then fly back to Israel, where their marriage is now recognized, but where nitty-gritty marriage stuff like wills and property distribution often have to be hashed out in court (instead of being automatic, as in Rabbinate-approved marriages).

The Times of Israel, with the repercussions:

This legal situation, inherited from the Ottoman era, has meant that some 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants who have Jewish relatives and are eligible to immigrate to Israel as Jews under Israeli law cannot marry at all, as the rabbinate does not consider them Jews under Jewish law and will not perform a wedding service for them with either Jews or non-Jews. Similarly, non-Orthodox (and, more recently, some Orthodox) converts to Judaism have been unable to marry under Israeli law.

So in order for Israel to stay modern and desirable, a new door must be opened for the more Tel Aviv-minded half of the country.

The United Nations' Human Rights Council found the issue so pressing, in fact, that — amid a rash of dictator crackdowns and civil wars throughout the Middle East — representatives from various countries told Israel at the council's last meeting that legalizing civil marriage was of utmost priority.

Enter brand-new Israeli political party Yesh Atid, formed last year to represent Israel's increasingly loud "secular middle class." Along with a coalition of civil organizations including the Aguda (Israel's leading LGBT-rights group), Yesh Atid has unleashed a bill onto Israel's parliament, the Knesset, that would create an entirely separate route for civil marriages.

The new option would be called a "covenantal partnership," said Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of Itim, an organization that "helps people navigate the religious authorities’ bureaucracy in Israel." And unlike the "civil union" option in the U.S., widely criticized by gay-rights activists for not providing the same protections and advantages as heterosexual marriage, Israel's "covenantal partnership" would provide all the same rights and recognitions as the traditional route, said Aguda spokesman Gil Kol.

The bill could face some nasty backlash from the religious right. The Jewish Home party has already come out against it, and member Yoni Chetboun told the Times of Israel, point blank: "It’s not right and it won’t happen." Kol explained that before the bill reaches the floor, the Knesset's Ministerial Committee for Legislative Affairs has 45 days to consider, and either accept or reject, its contents. (Last year, Ha'aretz called the "secretive" committee a "graveyard" where bills go to die.) The Aguda spokesman said its success will depend on whether Orthodox politicians are able to accept the concept of covenantal partnerships as existing entirely outside of the religious sphere.

Farber, for one, said he's as hopeful as he's ever been, in the 15 years he's been with Itim, that much-needed marriage reform in Israel could finally push through. "The present Knesset offers fresh hope and opportunity for us to advance a 21st century view of Judaism," he said.

Some have argued in America's fight for same-sex marriage that half the battle is in preserving the word "marriage." But Aguda spokesman Kol dismissed this issue as simply not the most pressing at the moment. "It's only semantics," he said. Rabbi Farber agreed, adding: "It is upsetting to some, but pretty much everybody realizes that this is as much as they’re going to get right now."

In this way, Israel has the opportunity to legalize gay marriage in a way it's never quite been legalized before: By allowing all marriages, and never specifically excluding gay couples from that definition.

And it's almost a bonus victory for the LGBT community to be involved in a same-sex marriage bill that addresses human rights in general, instead of singling out gay rights. "We're very happy with the bill because it looks at the problem from a civil point of view, in which the Jewish state is not a religious state," said Kol. "Israel needs to acknowledge the rights of people who don’t want to be part of the rabbinical system. This bill deals with every person, not just LGBT people. The great thing is it doesn’t only address our problem — it addresses everybody’s problem."

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Simone Wilson is a 26-year-old journalist from Northern California currently living in Tel Aviv, Israel. She served as editor in chief of UC San Diego’s student newspaper, the...

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