Religion and State in Israel

While Israel protects freedom of religion for all faiths; no citizen has the right to freedom from religion. The absence of separation of religion and state, civil marriage, interfaith marriage, and civil liberties for family life outside of religion means that the 42 % of family units which fall outside the de facto recognized definition of family in Israel, a man and a woman of the same religion married by the orthodox religious rituals required for government recognition, are discriminated against in recognition, rights and benefits.

In Israel’s 65 years of statehood, its native Arab population has multiplied, over two million people have immigrated from all over the world under the Law of Return, some quarter of a million people migrated for work, thirty-thousand African refugees have sought asylum from war and genocide, and the birth rate has increased, forming a heterogeneous population all subject to different laws and policies based on their personal status.

While changes in the structure of family have revolutionized the face of the family in Israel and around the world, the law has not kept up. The emergence of single-parent, interfaith, bi-national, same-sex and common-law families have challenged the limits of the law to allow people to live family life in dignity and equality. Orthodox religious authorities maintain exclusive jurisdiction over family life and personal status in Israel, and there is no civil solution to marriage, divorce, family unification, or protection of human rights befitting a diverse, democratic society.

Every resident in Israel has a religious status. Each individual must be registered as one of the recognized religions in Israel-Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze, or ‘religion-less’ (a person who does not meet the religious definition of any recognized religion, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Messianic Judaism, and more). A person who meets the religious definition of two religions-for example, the child of a Jewish mother and a Muslim or Christian father-might be socially considered having a ‘double religion’. Religious courts determine citizens’ religious status, which then impacts their rights, such as eligibility for marriage, the partner they can marry, divorce rights, reproductive rights, adoption, taxation, inheritance and more.

Those who do not meet the recognized formula for family in Israel-a man and a woman of the same religion married by orthodox religious rites-can’t marry nor register as a recognized union in the population registry. No civil marriages are conducted in Israel. People who wish to marry someone of a different religion or of the same-sex or must marry abroad or live as common-law spouses without a marriage certificate. Foreign civil marriages are registered but are not recognized religiously. Hundreds of thousands of people, who do not meet the religious definition of any faith, or fall into a ‘religiously prohibited’ category, cannot marry at all in Israel. Non-Jewish couples married in Israel are recognized as registered families but governed by separate religious authorities and subject to covert discrimination in many spheres.

The Orthodox stream of Judaism maintains a monopoly over the life cycle of Jews in Israel. Religious authorities deny entire categories of Jewish people the right to marry. Reform, Conservative and other streams of Judaism, which the majority of world Jewry practice, are completely excluded by the religious establishment, and even after decades of struggle, conversions by those streams are unrecognized in Israel. Jewish marriages performed in Israel by individuals other than authorized Orthodox Rabbis (including Reform and Conservative Rabbis) are criminal offenses according the Israeli Penal Law (article 182). Even Jewish marriages performed abroad are recognized only as a foreign civil marriage on the basis of its legality in another nation. Jewish couples in Israel who marry civilly abroad and choose to separate, even those who are ineligible to marry in Israel, must divorce through the orthodox religious establishment, subjecting women to pressure characteristic of a religious divorce.

Religious jurisdiction over personal status makes Israel the only democracy to legally discriminate on the basis of religion.

Israel remains the only democracy in the world with no civil marriage!