Orthodox control of marriage is forcing a growing number of Israelis to leave the country to marry, an Israel-based journalist told a local audience.
Orthodox rabbinic courts, said Eetta Prince-Gibson, relying on stringent interpretations of Jewish law, leave many women unable to receive a religious divorce and both men and women unable to marry because their Jewishness is questioned.
Prince-Gibson, the former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report and former special correspondent for the Washington Post, spoke Jan. 12 at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.
Because Israel recognizes marriages performed elsewhere, thriving businesses arrange weddings in Cyprus, a short flight away. Couples often bring their own rabbi and huppa. Cynics joke that they are looking forward to the establishment of a Palestinian state so they can get married in Ramallah and drive home at night for the party.
Joking aside, however, Prince-Gibson suggested that the rabbinate’s overreaching power over family status in Israel is creating a rift between secular and religious in Israel and between Israel and the Diaspora. In addition to marriage and divorce, the rabbinate supervises all “personal status” issues, including conversion, burial, kashrut certification, and supervision of ritual baths and other religious services.
“If we lose the support of the American-Jewish community we will eventually lose the support of the American government,” said Prince-Gibson, who made aliya at age 19 and whose mother, Lil Prince, is a temple member. A regular contributor to Ha’aretz, the Al-Monitor media site, and Moment magazine, Prince-Gibson has lectured on the social and political status of women at Hebrew and Brandeis universities.
Under Halacha, Jewish law, a woman can’t receive a religious divorce unless her husband signs a “get” dissolving the union. However, in some cases, men extort large sums of money or simply refuse to sign a get, leaving their wives as agunot, or chained women, unable to remarry.
Because Israel is among 45 countries without civil marriage, it is in the dubious company of Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, which also cede control of marriage and divorce to religious authorities.
Prince-Gibson noted this also places Arabs, who comprise 20 percent of Israel’s population, under the control of their own religious authorities in marriage and divorce,
“Israel is the only non-Islamic state in the world that imposes Sharia law on Muslim women,” she explained.
An estimated 400,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, where intermarriage was common, came to Israel as Jews under the civil Law of Return, but now have to prove they are Jewish when they want to marry.
These barriers remain despite the fact that Israel ranks among the most socially progressive countries in the world on many issues, including gay and reproductive rights and domestic violence protection for women, Prince-Gibson said.
She urged audience members to support initiatives by such organizations as Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Committee, which are working to reform the system.