Israel: Equal Rights As Workaround
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Published in: May-June 2013 issue.


ON THE FIRST DAY that New York State allowed same-sex couples to marry, I headed to the main office of the New York City clerk in lower Manhattan. I wasn’t about to exercise my own freedom to marry. Rather, I was there to watch couples march down the aisle set up by the NYPD to facilitate their equality—and to walk the recessional having achieved it.

As in the United States, where ten states and the District of Columbia have marriage equality, Israel has marriage equality of an indeterminate nature, but in a different way. Same-sex couples in Israel cannot get married on Israeli soil. But if they travel abroad to marry in jurisdictions that allow them to, the Israeli government will then register their marriages in Israel.

The Israeli system is the epitome of combina, the colloquial term in Hebrew for contriving a bypass around a blocked highway to reach one’s objective. Many opposite-sex couples in Israel engage in the same combina to be considered married in Israel.

Why? Israeli law puts control of marriage in the hands of religion. For couples who are Jewish—most Israeli couples, of course—Israeli law puts control of marriage in the exclusive hands of the Orthodox, who, in turn, perform Orthodox Jewish ceremonies. Secular couples seeking an alternative, or couples unqualified to marry under Jewish law, cannot go to civil officials, for they have no legal power to marry couples in Israel. Instead, such opposite-sex couples go abroad to marry, commonly to Cyprus, and are declared married back home.

This arrangement harks back to a Supreme Court ruling in 1963 that obliged the state to register out-of-country marriages. Years later, five Israeli same-sex couples traveled to Toronto to marry under Canadian law and then sued the state of Israel to register their marriages at home. In 2006, the Israeli Supreme Court decided in their favor.

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