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Israelis Zoom to Utah in search of civil marriage

Since civil marriage does not exist in Israel, mixed-faith couples and people who do not want a religious marriage are now opting for online weddings performed in the US state of Utah.
Zoom wedding

TEL AVIV — Israel’s High Court rejected an appeal by the state against allowing civil marriages performed online in the US state of Utah to be registered in Israel. The March 7 ruling opened the way for civil marriages via Zoom.

In Israel, weddings must be officiated by religious authorities. The Chief Rabbinate is responsible for performing and registering all marriages between Israeli Jews, Muslim religious authorities are responsible for marriages between Israeli Muslims and Christian religious authorities are responsible for marriages between Israeli Christians. Mixed-faith marriages are impossible in Israel. For these couples and those interested in civil marriage, marrying abroad was the only option until March 8

It all started some two years ago, during the pandemic. An Israeli couple decided to take advantage of the lull between COVID-19 lockdowns to hold a small, private wedding ceremony in the presence of family and friends. The couple wanted a civil ceremony to serve their secular beliefs and views.

Easy signup, low cost

The law in Israel does not recognize such ceremonies. They were sure they would need to travel abroad and wed again to later register in Israel as a married couple. Flying abroad at that time was complicated. But then, the couple discovered a surprising, efficient and cheaper alternative: marriage via Zoom in the US state of Utah. The new technology, born of the global pandemic quarantines, offered a lifeline to the couple, both fully eligible Jews who simply did not want the Rabbinate involved in their lives.

"We signed up online," said the husband, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The wedding itself was exciting. Our parents were both on Zoom at home, we had two friends with us and a Utah city clerk married us. We received a marriage certificate." The cost was only $250.

The Ministry of Interior, however, refused to register their marriage, arguing that Zoom ceremonies were invalid. The minister of the interior at the time was Aryeh Deri, chair of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party that objects to civil marriage in general, in an effort to maintain the monopoly of the rabbinical institutions on marriage, divorce and other proceedings.

Our couple were not the only ones turned away. Others who took advantage of the new option found themselves in the same boat, with the state arguing that the ceremony was actually held in Israel and as such was not entitled to protection under Supreme Court rulings allowing the registration of couples who marry abroad.

Hiddush, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of religious freedom, took up the couple’s case and those of seven others, including two women and a mixed-religion couple (in which one of the partners is not officially recognized as Jewish). Hiddush petitioned the Court of Administrative Affairs against the ministry’s decision and won. The court ruled that the state’s refusal to recognize the Zoom weddings was illegal.

Still, before the couples could register, the state appealed the ruling last year and Hiddush petitioned the High Court of Justice. The court accepted the petition, ordering the state to register the online weddings. The court ruled that the marriage ceremony venue was a complicated issue not yet addressed by law or case law. Nonetheless, it noted that the ceremonies were conducted in accordance with the laws of the state of Utah, by an official authority that issued them legal marriage certificates.

Hiddush's director, Rabbi Uri Regev, hailed the ruling for its validation of new technology. The decision itself, he added, was in keeping with previous rulings on issues of civil marriage.

"Israelis discovered the Utah marriage by word of mouth during the COVID-19 pandemic. The drama here is the new avenue through which thousands of Israelis who cannot register in Israel as married will be able to marry. The State of Israel is the only Western democracy that denies its citizens freedom of marriage due to the demands of the religious political parties."

80% of secular Israelis prefer civil marriage

Regev noted that surveys conducted by his organization indicate that about 80% of those who define themselves as secular Israeli Jews prefer a civil ceremony over a rabbinical one.

The non-religious option also provides a solution for hundreds of thousands of Israelis, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, whose Jewish descent is not recognized by rabbinical authorities. Its popularity explains the intense efforts over the years by the religious parties and rabbinical authorities to invalidate it.

They could get their way after all if the current right-wing, religious government is successful in pushing through its judicial overhaul designed to weaken the country’s top court.

Under the proposed laws, a Knesset majority could override High Court rulings, thus invalidating the civilian wedding avenue, whether via Zoom or travel abroad. Judging by the response of Shas Knesset member Moshe Arbel, it seems likely. In a statement, Arbel described the ruling as “meddling” in political affairs, arguing that it proved the necessity of the proposed judicial reform limiting the court’s purview.

“The recognition … of civil marriages performed on the Zoom app is a sad joke at the expense of all citizens of Israel — religious, traditional and secular alike — and expresses more than anything a desire to promote the values of the 'State of All its Citizens' and erase the Jewish identity of the state,” said Arbel.

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