Israel is a land of contrasts for LGBTQIA+ people. While Tel Aviv has long been a bastion of LGBT+ acceptance, much of the rest of the country is not so friendly. Six people were stabbed at the 2015 Pride march in Jerusalem by an ultra Orthodox man named Yishai Schlissel. Shira Banki, a 16 year old Israeli, died as a result of her wounds. Being out in Israel, especially in ultra-religious Jerusalem, continues to have its risks.
And yet, there are clear signs that things are improving in the Jewish state. While marriage equality is not yet a reality in Israel, recent moves by the Netanyahu government have increased state recognition of LGBT+ people. Same-sex couples married overseas are now recognised by the state, with Israel’s attorney general recently announcing that spouses of Israelis will be able to become citizens at the same pace as heterosexual couples. Previously, the process had taken up to seven years for same-sex couples, and only delivered permanent residency rather than citizenship.
There appears to be a growing acceptance of LGBT+ rights in general and marriage rights in particular. A poll in June last year found that 76% of Israelis support same-sex civil marriage or registration. When broken down into religious belief, the survey showed that 90% of secular Israelis support marriage equality, while 77% of traditional Jewish, 46% of national religious Jewish and 16% of Haredi ultra-Orthodox supported equal rights for same-sex couples.
This is complicated by Israel’s arcane marriage system, in which only religious marriages are performed in the country, with no civil alternative. Rabbinical courts have sole authority over marriage and divorce, which has numerous consequences. First, secular Israeli heterosexuals must have a religious wedding—not something all desire—if they wish to marry in Israel. Second, the courts demarcate who is properly Jewish and who is not, excluding Reform/progressive converts as well as many others (especially Russian Jews) who qualified as Jewish under the Law of Return but not for the more strict Orthodox rabbinical courts. Moreover, intermarriages are not performed by the rabbinical establishment, preventing Jewish-Arab marriages among others. This places a heavy burden on couples where one partner is not recognised as Jewish, meaning many couples currently marry outside of Israel. Lastly, religious courts make the lives of women wanting to get divorced from a recalcitrant husband extremely difficult, so much so that these women are called agunot (“chained women”).
As a result, it is clear that the current regime for same-sex couples of recognising marriages outside of Israel may well be the best the LGBT+ community can get for the moment, at least until secular, civil marriages are a reality in Israel for all couples. Same-sex marriage will never be accepted by the rabbinical establishment in Israel. Further, some activists are concerned that Israel is engaging in “pinkwashing,” using its comparatively liberal (for the Middle East) record on LGBT+ rights in order to distract from the conflict with Palestine without truly committing to the community. The Israel/Palestine conflict looms behind every discussion in this area. So, what Australians may think of as marriage equality is only one part of a broader change needed in the way Israel treats marriage. The creation of a civil marriage system to replace the current religious regime would be a major step towards marriage equality for all kinds of people in Israel, including the LGBT+ community.
Shaun Micallef's Stairway to Heaven airs on SBS on Wednesdays at 8.30pm from 18 January 2017. Watch all the episodes online after they air on SBS On Demand.