Marriage, gay marriage: Just how liberal is Israel?

As New York legalizes gay marriage, Israel looks more and more like a theocracy

The senate of the state of New York legalized civil marriages between gay couples tonight. New York, where the fight for gay rights began, is the sixth state in the US which affirms the rights of gay people to marry. South Africa passed a similar bill two years ago, and a large number of countries recognize a union – not a full marriage – between gay couples.

Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, one which particularly gay-friendly. Thia is is a common talking for the Hasbara organs, particularly in the last few years. Israel was one of the first countries to recognize – via the courts, not by legislation – the rights of gay couples. Gay marriage is non-valid in Israel, but it recognizes those held abroad.

Which seems rather liberal, until you remember that in Israel, a Jew and non-Jew cannot marry legally Nor, for that can Protestants (aside from Anglicans): They are not a legally recognized religious sect. Israel still employs the Turkish millet system, under which a person is not a member of a nationality, but rather a member of a religious group. The millet system is still in existence 93 years after the Turks departed and 63 years after the end of the Mandate. A Cohen – that is, a member of the long-defunct Temple oligarchy – can marry a divorcee only with difficulty, by a decision of the Supreme Court. Israel proclaims itself a Jewish state – and, of course, we’re talking Orthodox Judaism here: Reform or Conservative Jews cannot legally marry in Israel, as these are not legally-recognized millets. As far as Israeli law is concerned, Reform and Conservative Jews are not Jews.

All of which is particularly helpful to the Zionist regime, as it allows it – as Hanna Arndt knew back in the days of the Eichmann trial – to conveniently prevent that great Jewish horror of mixed marriages, while avoiding a law saying so openly. After the Nuremburg Laws, this might have become a huge Hasbara problem. The deal between the regime and the rabbis suited both sides, most of the time: It gave the rabbinate an official recognition, and the rabbis, in return, have given a limited legitimacy to the regime.

And yet, a large segment of the Jewish population had a problem with this deal, either because they rejected the rabbinate for ideological reasons or because the rabbinate, relying on the Halacha, Jewish law, was unwilling to marry them. The government then found a pressure valve: Israel would never agree to civil marriages, as it would allow Jews and non-Jews to intermarry, but it would recognize marriages carried out in another country, as this was an international obligation.

Until the end of the 1980s, this could be easily done in the foreign consulates in Israel; but the Foreign Office pressured the consulates until they stopped providing this service. Since that time, a couple who wanted to marry and would either be unrecognized by the rabbis or refused to recognize them in return, had to take a flight to Cyprus. That is, Israeli citizens who fulfilled all their legal and civil obligations could not be married in their country. It is worth noting that Israel’s recognition of gay marriage is based on the same compromise: The government would not recognize them a priori, but would respect a marriage certified by another country.

Israel’s liberalism is only skin-deep. Israel prides itself on its so-called liberalism towards the gay – but, in practice, this liberalism exists only in that part of the country the establishment vilifies, that is Tel Aviv. The Jerusalem pride parades always needed heavy security, and – as the stabbing of three marchers in 2005 will attest – that was not always sufficient. Then again, the massacre in the gay youth meeting place (the Bar Noar) two years ago shows, not even Tel Aviv is perfectly safe. The persons responsible for the massacre were never apprehended – nor were the rabbis who incited to it. Legitimacy for the gay lifestyle in Israel is limited to the westernized parts of the country – i.e., those parts who, to quote Netanyahu, “have forgotten what it means to be Jewish”. In Israel, the more Jewish someone is, than as a rule the more people he hates – and, like the US fundies they imitate, the national-Orthodox have a particular hatred of gays.

Then there is the issue of divorce. Even people marrying in Cyprus or Prague will, should they decide to divorce, need the dubious services of the rabbinate, or they’ll have a serious problem re-marrying. A woman coming into a rabbinate court is in an inherently inferior position: Jewish law denies her not just the right to sit in judgment, but also to testify, and she is automatically considered to be “flighty”. The rabbis have grown up reading that woman is a “vessel filled with excrement, which everyone desires”.

And the status of women in Israel rapidly declines. The Supreme Court approved (Hebrew) in the beginning of 2011 the existence of segregated buses, with the women sitting in the back and the men in front. As usual when it deals with touchy subjects, the Court closed its eyes to reality: It approved the decision while mouthing platitudes about “agreed implementation” and “no violence”, ignoring what everyone knew about how the segregation is actually implemented. A few weeks back, the highest authority among the ultra-Orthodox, Shlomo Yoseph Elyashiv – who notoriously supported (Hebrew) the child-torturing rabbi, Elior Khen – publicly announced (Hebrew) that the “shaming” of women who refused to take their place at the back of the bus was permitted. Needless to say, he was not interrogated for this incitement. He’s a rabbi, and an important one.

It’s not just the busses: The position of women deteriorates in the IDF, as well. The sight of religious soldiers leaving ceremonies because a woman is singing is becoming common, as is the case of male religious soldiers refusing to serve alongside women, with the tacit support of the brass. In Me’ah She’arim in Jerusalem, with the police turning a blind eye, some streets are being segregated. Jerusalem is the mine’s canary: What happens there, will soon happen in every town with a large ultra-Orthodox minority. Given the sordid history of government cave-ins, there’s not likely to be much noise. After all, it’s just women.

The amount of freedom in society, we are often told, can be measured by how it treats its women and minorities. In this test, Israel doesn’t have much to be proud of. It’s not Ryad, and it’s no Tehran, true.

We used to aspire to more.