Marriage rates in Israel are high: 44,685 women were wed in 2006, 91% (40,884) for the first time. 13,349 couples got divorced that year. The average age of brides marrying for the first time is as follows: Jews - 25.5%; Christians – 24.4%; Muslims - 22.1%; Druze – 22.6%. The average age of women in Israel marrying for the first time (24.7) is lower than in the EU (28.1).94Women in Israel are subjected to various types of discrimination illegally, yet personal status laws themselves discriminate against women and are anchored in legislation. Israeli law grants judicial authority to religious courts in all matters pertaining to matrimony and divorce. Because according Jewish law, women and men do not have equal rights in marriage and divorce, Israeli law does not grant women equal rights in personal status laws.
Jewish Women and Matrimony95
Jewish citizens are obliged by law to wed and divorce according to Jewish law in its Orthodox interpretation. In the past years, more and more couples avoid marrying by the Jewish Orthodox ceremony and many chose to travel abroad in order to marry in a civil court, comprising approximately 11% of all Jewish couples.96 However, even couples who refused to marry in the State according to Jewish law and marry abroad are not exempt from structural inequity. Jewish couples who marry abroad (like their counterparts who married according to Jewish law) are permitted to divorce only in a religious court and not in a civil court.
Only 2 courts are authorized to address personal status matters in Israel: family courts and religious courts. All Israeli citizens are obligated to marry and divorce according to religious law according to their religious affiliation. As stated, matrimony and divorce are under the sole jurisdiction of religious courts.
Other matters pertaining to personal aspects such as custody, guardianship, inheritance and alimony are under the jurisdiction of both family courts and religious courts. The State’s decision to accord matrimony and divorce proceedings to the sole jurisdiction of the Orthodox Rabbinical court (for Jews) contradicts democratic principles and conventions Israel is party to, according to which the State views women and men as equals.
Also, assigning marriage and divorce to the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts does not require these courts to operate according to an Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. Rather, rabbinical courts should be open to progressive movements too, such as the Conservative and Reform movements, which interpret Jewish law differently. Granting Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law a monopoly in rabbinical courts and among its judges is a political statement detrimental to many women.
94 Central Bureau of Statistics. (2009) Press Release: Selected Data Published for International Women’s Day 2009
95 Yakir Englander in Tamir, Tal. (2007) Women in Israel 2006: Between Theory and Reality. Israel Women’s Network.
96 Halperin-Kaddari Ruth and Inbal Karo. (2009) Women and Family in Israel - Statistical Bi-annual Report. The Rackman Center for
the Advancement of the Status of Women. Bar Ilan University. Page 33 (Hebrew)
30 We Keep Running, but Are We Getting “Somewhere Else”?
Another important issue is the problem of prohibited marriages. Many couples in Israel are prohibited from marrying at all. These include marriage of male Cohens (descendants of Jewish priests) to divorced women, Jews to non-Jews, same-sex marriages, and bastards (According to Jewish law, a bastard is a child born to a married woman and fathered by a man other than her husband).
In the past few years, law proposals have addressed legalizing civil unions (rather than civil marriage or plain marriage) that are unsanctioned by religious courts through civil courts. The proposal to allow civil unions as an alternative to the Orthodox marriage ceremony is a compromise between a legal alternative for institutionalizing a couple’s relationship and religious authorities who object to civil marriages. These proposals seek to preserve the existing arrangement whereby religious marriages are only Orthodox, and establish a new legal authority that will address the needs of couples who are not permitted or do not wish to marry in a religious court. In July 2009, the government proposed a law enabling civil union only for people lacking religious affiliation. This law does not solve the range of problems religious marriage poses for women. This law is currently awaiting an additional discussion, and given the current coalition, it may be approved soon.
Jewish Women Denied a Religious Divorce
According to the interpretation of Jewish law, divorce is considered valid only when voluntarily delivered by the husband and not as the result of coercion. As such, husbands hold the bargaining chips and may refuse to deliver the divorce for any reason (in order to abuse her, to obtain financial benefits) rendering her a woman who is refused a divorce. The exact number of women who are refused divorce in
Israel is unknown and often depends on the definition. Rabbinical courts define as such women the court has required the husband to grant a divorce to but he refuses. In 2007, rabbinical courts intervened and imposed divorces on only 18 men.97
Women's organizations report that while thousands of women’ s husbands refuse to grant them a divorce, the rabbinical courts does not force them to do so. These women are considered married by Jewish and Israeli law, meaning they are trapped: they no longer live with their husbands but are unable to move forward, re-marry, and start over. This is particularly problematic for ultra-Orthodox women as they strictly adhere to religious law.
Jewish Women Unable to Receive a Divorce
Another problem originating in Jewish Law is that of the abandoned women, a woman whose husband is not present (missing, left the country) or who is not legally competent to deliver a divorce (insane, comatose). The only solution for these women is to have the rabbinical court terminate the marriage, an option which the rabbinical courts avoid at all costs. A famous example is the wife of missing navigator Ron Arad, who has been missing in action for nearly 24 years, who is unable to remarry as Arad has not been religiously declared dead. Since he is only missing until proof of his death is found or he declared dead by the state, she is unable to obtain a religious divorce and is unable to remarry in accordance to Jewish law.
97 Halperin-Kaddari Ruth and Inbal Karo. (2009) Women and Family in Israel - Statistical Bi-annual Report. The Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women. Bar Ilan University. Page 74 (Hebrew)
Arab Women and Marriage98
Arab citizens of Israel are divided into several religious communities: Muslims, Druze, and Christians. The State despite the contradiction between national and religious laws has permitted the essence of religious prohibitions and permits regarding marriage to dominate Arab citizens’ affairs. Its intervention in these matters is only through criminal sanctions, but it refrains from intervening in the essential matters of religious law. Problems occur for women in terms of religious laws mostly pertain to wedding minors and polygamy. The number of female Muslim minors wed was over twice the number of their Jewish counterparts; among 16-17 year-olds it was 4 times higher.99 There is no exact data concerning polygamy in Israel. According to estimates, 20-36% of families in Bedouin society are polygamous. While Bedouin society is undergoing processes of modernization, the rate of polygamy is not declining and the phenomenon perseveres even among young and educated people.100
Moreover Israel is a signatory of the Beijing Declaration, and a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which refers to child marriage, whereby the UN's definition of children is anyone under the age of 18. However, Israel has a procedure to authorize in exceptional cases, the marriage of minors to marry. 56.8% of requests submitted in 1997-2007 were authorized. In 2007, 3,843 girls under 18 were wed but the actual; number is probably much higher than the number of cases reported or those requesting permission. The rates of under-age marriages in Israel are due to social and religious norms for instance the number of Muslim girls wed before they were 18 was twice the number of the Jewish girls, and 4 times higher among Muslim girls aged 16-17. In 2000-2008, 46 complaints were filed for violation of the Israeli Marriage Age Law (1950). Only half the complaints led to criminal proceedings; in comparison, only 3 cases led to criminal proceedings for illegal marriage of a male minor.58