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Court approval of ‘Utah Zoom’ weddings adds to debate over judicial reform

The Israeli Supreme Court ruling comes after a lengthy legal battle over civil marriage.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel and currently a Labor Party lawmaker, officiates at a wedding outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, in protest of the Orthodox Rabbinate's monopoly on marriage licensing and the nonrecognition of civil marriages in Israel, March 18, 2013. Credit: Flash90.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel and currently a Labor Party lawmaker, officiates at a wedding outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, in protest of the Orthodox Rabbinate's monopoly on marriage licensing and the nonrecognition of civil marriages in Israel, March 18, 2013. Credit: Flash90.

Is it a milestone in the realization of civil rights or a danger to the nation’s Jewish identity?

That question was front and center when Israel’s Supreme Court issued a watershed ruling this week requiring the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority to register civil marriages performed online.

The court decision is expected to add fuel to the bitter debate underway between the judicial and legislative/executive branches of government as the gamesmanship over a possible compromise on the planned judicial overhaul continues, officials said Thursday.

The unanimous court decision handed down Tuesday on a state appeal of an earlier district court ruling requires online civil marriages carried out from the U.S. state of Utah—generally via Zoom—to be registered by the ministry.

The final court ruling, which culminated a two-year legal battle, highlights the ongoing debate over whether the court has justifiably safeguarded the rights of the minority or waded into politics and is altering the character of the Jewish state.

It also sets up a showdown between the different streams of Judaism—via their supporters in the parliament—as the Supreme Court chips away at the ultra-Orthodox sector’s control of all wedding ceremonies involving Jews conducted within Israel, a sector concerned that this will lead to a mushrooming in the number of civil marriages recognized in Israel.

“The obstacle that was overcome here was the cynical politics of governments of Israel—from the right, center and left—who for years capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox parties, preventing hundreds of thousands of Israelis from getting married,” Uri Regev, CEO of the NGO Hiddush—For Religious Freedom and Equality and a party to the suit, said in an interview with JNS.

He said calling the ruling “political” was utterly “ridiculous,” even as he acknowledged that it would be used as a “sports ball” in the debate over the judicial reform program.

Previously, thousands of Israelis who chose to wed in civil ceremonies—either because they were interfaith couples, Reform or Conservative converts or members of the LGBT community, or they simply chose not to marry via the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate—headed to Cyprus, Prague, Tuscany, Russia and other countries each year to get married.

“Why is it OK to go to Cyprus for civil marriage, to go to Utah or any other place for a civil marriage, but if Utah comes to you via Zoom it’s not fine?” Regev asked.

He said that the court did not rule on the validity of such marriages—clearly a hot potato—but about the administrative registration of such online marriages.

Such a legalistic distinction, however, was lost upon opponents of the decision.

MK Moshe Arbel of Shas said that the court’s latest “political decision,” announced during the Purim holiday, only drove home the need to swiftly enact judicial reform.

“The Supreme Court’s recognition on Purim of civil marriages performed over the Zoom app is a sad joke at the expense of all of Israel’s religious and traditional citizens, and expresses more than anything the desire to advance the values of a ‘state of all its citizens’ and erase the Jewish identity of the state,” Arbel said.

Online wedding ceremonies became increasingly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic when travel abroad was restricted.

After a few Israelis registered online marriages, Shas Party leader and then-Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, after he was questioned on the matter by the ultra-Orthodox press, ordered their registration suspended.

Over the last two years of legal appeals, the registration of 600 couples was frozen, leading to a bottleneck. Their marriages were recognized in the last few weeks.

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