In Israel, Love And Law Near Showdown

February 15, 1994|By Danna Bethlehem | Danna Bethlehem,Special to The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Oscar Meron came to Israel to discover his Jewish roots. But when he fell in love with his Jewish counselor on a kibbutz, they had to fly to Cyprus to get married.

They could not be married in Israel because the law here does not allow it between people of different faiths. Mr. Meron, 23, whose family was forced to abandon Judaism four centuries ago during the Spanish Inquisition, is considered Roman Catholic.

Being of different religions is only one of the complications that drives couples out of Israel to get married, or into lawyers' offices to devise novel legal unions short of matrimony.

The only way Jews can be married here is by the Israeli rabbinate, controlled by the Orthodox religious establishment. Civil marriages, or marriages performed here by more liberal Jewish streams like the Conservative or Reform movements, are not recognized.

"We think it is absurd that we were forced to get married overseas when Oscar came to Israel in order to convert to Judaism," said his bride, Sigal Zohar, 23. "It hurts us very much. We would have preferred getting married with the rabbinate like everyone else and not be different."

Christians and Muslims also dictate their own marriage rules -- there is no civil marriage for anyone here, nor is there civil divorce. The beginning and end of matrimony are dictated by strict religious regulations.

For example, former Supreme Court Justice Chaim Cohen could not marry a Jewish woman who was legally divorced. The religious laws prevent any Cohen -- the family name of Jewish priests in antiquity -- from marrying divorcees.

Justice Cohen and his wife, Michal, went to New York to be married by a Conservative rabbi nearly 30 years ago. The prohibition still stands today.

"As long as governments depend on the religious parties for coalitions, there is no chance that the situation will change," said Justice Cohen.

The Orthodox community's lock on marriage was formalized in 1947. One year before the establishment of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, the country's first prime minister, made a deal with the religious leaders. In exchange for their support for the establishment of Israel, he agreed to grant them sole authority over matrimony, among a few other elements of life.

Religious parties have long held the swing vote for coalition governments in parliament.

The rabbinate's hard-line approach especially has made life a misery for an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people who appear on a blacklist of "unmarriageables." These are people who are banned under Jewish law from getting married, such as women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish writ of divorce.

The marriage of Justice and Mrs. Cohen and that of Mr. and Mrs. Meron are recognized by the authorities because Israel is obliged under international law to accept all legal weddings performed outside the country. The tough battle is to get official recognition for non-Orthodox marriages performed inside the country.

Some critics believe now is the time to try to break the Orthodox establishment's stranglehold over personal relationships.

Two progressive Jewish organizations, the Conservative movement and the Reform movement, recently placed newspaper ads urging potential newlyweds to choose ceremonies performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.

Paul Shindman, 36, and Lisa Talesnick, 32, both Jewish, chose this route.

"To me, the thought of having to go to the rabbinate to get married, is . . . I don't want to say repulsive, but I find repulsive," said Mr. Shindman.

Ms. Talesnick agrees: "I think the rabbinate is adhering to a system that needs to be updated."

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, acting director of the Israeli movement for Conservative Judaism, believes the time for battle is ripe:

"Something has happened in Israeli public opinion. The ultra-Orthodox's exemption from military service, their attempts to control the secular public, their financial demands . . . The accumulation of this type of thing has caused a feeling of rage against the ultra-Orthodox establishment. The secular public is on the verge of explosion."

The Center for Human and Civil Rights, a civil liberties group, has established an "alternative marriage registry" to register couples who formalize their relationship in ceremonies other than those performed by the Israeli rabbinate.

For Yoram Gai-Ron, director of the Alternative Marriage Registry, this issue is one of principle. He feels that the system will only change when couples start living what they believe.

"When you go about forming perhaps the most intimate ties from a personal perspective, you have the right to do it in a way suitable to your views and conscience," he said.

Mr. Gai-Ron's law firm offers marriage through a contract which is drawn up by lawyers. This kind of agreement is not recognized by the authorities, but it is an alternative for couples who do not believe in religious ceremonies and who refuse to go abroad to get a civil marriage.

Mr. Gai-Ron and his wife live together through just such a contract.

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