A civil affair

The island of Cyprus. Credit: NASA.
The island of Cyprus. Credit: NASA.

In America, those seeking to avoid large-scale weddings often elope to Las Vegas. In Israel, there are couples that elope to Cyprus—but for legal reasons, rather than for convenience or their personal taste.

Civil marriages are currently not a viable option in the Jewish state, as all weddings must be overseen by a religious authority.

“There is no formal civil marriage option in Israel,” writes Zvi Triger in Civil Marriages and Cohabitation of Jews Enter the Rabbinical Courts. Triger, a senior lecturer at the College of Management, Haim Striks School of Law, specializes in family law issues.

“There is one commonly practiced way of avoiding the civil marriage ban (and thus the monopoly of religion over marriage), which is to get married abroad in countries that allow civil marriage for non-citizens and non-residents,” he writes.

The most popular destination for this is Cyprus, which is nearby and economical. It’s a chosen venue not only for people who are not permitted to get married in Israel (such as a Jew and a non-Jew), but also for those who object to the requirement to have a religious ceremony that may not necessarily be in line with their beliefs; the only acceptable religious ceremony is an Orthodox one.

“There are thousands of people who don’t want the state involved in their private life,” says Irit Rosenblum, a lawyer and founder of New Family (, an organization that advocates for all Israelis to gain marital rights and family rights. “You create a family either by partnership or by parenthood. The minute you become more than one person, you create your own nest.” But creating that nest can be problematic. Rosenblum’s book, Theory of the New Family, describes the conflict between the state of mind of the family entity and of the public.

Current Israeli law regarding marriage dates to the British Mandate period, and is based on laws set up during the Ottoman Empire. “It granted the various religious communities autonomy with regard to family law,” Triger writes. “Family matters were dealt with by the communities’ own religious tribunals, according to their own religious laws.”

“The Marriage and Divorce Registration law is from 1919,” says Rosenblum. “Believe it or not, this law still exists. It means marriage for Jews happens in rabbinical court, for Muslims with an imam, Christians in a church. And civil law marriages are registered by a British Mandate Officer. But nobody has nominated a British Mandate Officer yet,” she quips. “There’s no need to change the law, it’s already in place—all we need to do is nominate that officer.”

Rosenblum started New Family in 1998, to help Israelis who didn’t fall into the “normal” category for marriage. While she personally has a so-called normal family (Jewish husband, three children, and a dog), she become concerned by the number of people having trouble legally building a family in Israel.

A few years ago, MK David Rotem proposed a civil marriage law that, after many readings, was passed in March 2010 by the Knesset. “The new law allows non-Jewish Israelis, or citizens defined by the State as lacking religious denomination, to marry via the soon-to-be-formed marriage registrar bureau,” reported Ynet. However, three years later, that bureau has yet to be established.

Defining the lack of religion is the challenge, explains Rosenblum. “Nobody can use this law,” she says. “The paradox is, to prove you are atheist, you have to go to a religious institution to give you a certificate that you are religion-less – it’s absurd. Less than five people have been registered. Very few people can give evidence that they are religion-less, because you can go back two or three generations and see that there is religion. The definition of religion-less is that there are no religion-less parents.”

Those who can get married in Israel—not civilly, but legally, according to Jewish law—are a Jewish man and a Jewish woman who are both single. Rabbi Seth Farber’s organization Itim ( helps people get through the red tape involved in various civic institutions, including marriage. They spell out the list of those who cannot legally get married in Israel.

The easily defined exceptions include same sex couples and a Jew and a non-Jew. Then it gets more complex. A Cohen—a Jew considered a descendent of the priestly class—cannot marry a divorcee, widow, or convert. A mamzer (bastard) can only marry another mamzer, a challenge when it comes to categorizing people born via artificial insemination by a sperm donor.

Converts need to have undergone an Orthodox conversion acceptable to the Israeli Rabbinate. A case that received a lot of attention a few years ago involved an American woman who had made aliyah, served in the army and lived in Israel for several years. She had been brought up Jewish, had a bat mitzvah, attended Hebrew school. But her mother had converted through a Reform ceremony, and that was considered unacceptable; in order to have a Jewish wedding, the Rabbinate required her to go through an Orthodox conversion. Her engagement ended, and she left Israel.

Still, many people do not object to the legalities. Rosa is not Jewish. She moved to Israel from Ecuador, and became engaged to Ephraim, an Israeli, who is. “I understand that I must respect the laws of the country I am living in,” she says. They went to Cyprus for their wedding last year. There is a micro industry for Cyprian marriages, with travel packages available that include airfare, hotel, and the ceremony. “Some people make an international wedding party,” Rosa says. “Others, like us, do it privately. Honestly, it was very romantic.”

Rosa plans to convert. “I want to be Jewish, so I understand why,” she says. “Israel is a Jewish country. It was created for the Jewish people.”

Rosenblum believes marriages should be as simple as possible. “I think there’s no need for civil marriage, it’s the same bureaucracy under a different cloth,” she says. “There should not be an institution that is allowed to give me a license to love, neither religious or civil.”

For this reason, New Family created “Tehudat Zugiot,” Domestic Union Cards. More than 10,000 Israelis now have one, and there is an extensive list of civil and social rights awarded to those with the card.

“Places are honoring it,” Rosenblum says. “We are the competition to Cyprus.”

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