'A Jewish and Democratic State:' Reflections on the Fragility of Israeli Secularism
11 Pages Posted: 3 Mar 2015
Date Written: May 15, 2014
While Israel self-defines itself as “a Jewish and democratic State,” the Israeli laws that pertain to the most intimate of choices — the choice of a life partner — are ancient religious laws and not laws that were enacted in a democratic process. The only way to get married in Israel is in a religious ceremony according to one’s religion. The determination of a person’s religion, as will be discussed below, is also under the sole jurisdiction of religious tribunals according to religious law.
This regime creates numerous problems from a secular point of view, three of which will be discussed in this Essay. First, religious affiliation is not a matter of self-definition, nor is it a matter of determination by secular state law. It is determined according to ancient religious laws and the secular state therefore has no way of altering or adapting them to our time. Second, Israelis have apparently a very narrow right to freedom from religion. Secular Israelis, whether Jews, Muslims, or Christians, who do not wish to marry in a religious ceremony or to have a religious divorce have no civil procedure or ceremony available in Israel. They must travel abroad and get married in a country that allows non-citizens to get married on its territory. Third, Israeli citizens who wish to get married in Israel are limited to choose only partners from their own religion, since most religions regard interfaith marriages as void.
After briefly introducing the roots of the religious monopoly over personal status issues in Israel, this Essay will discuss these three limitations on the “democratic” part in Israel’s self-definition and the impact they have on Israeli secularism.
Keywords: religion, marriage, divorce, family law Jewish law, Israel, secularism
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