Haviv Rettig Gur attacks me for picking up Shlomo Sand’s statement that intermarriage is banned in Israel legally. His attack begins with this rather unpersuasive statement: "The basic fact is true, but the social, historical and moral reality behind it is missing."
There is no law against intermarriage.
Here’s what Sand failed to explain: Israel inherited Ottoman personal status law which places personal status – marriage, divorce, burial, etc. – in the hands of religious establishments. This means Jews can only marry in a rabbinic court, Muslims must marry in a sharia court, Catholics only within the auspices of the Catholic Church, Druse in their system, etc.
Well I’m reading Shlomo Sand’s great book now and Gur is I believe misrepresenting the reality. Sand makes it clear that a bar on intermarriage was no leftover accident of history. "In 1953 the political promise to bar civil marriage in Israel was given a legal basis. The law defining the legal status of the rabbinical courts determined that they would have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce of Jews in Israel. By this means, the dominant socialist Zionism harnessed the principles of the traditional rabbinate as an alibi for its fearful imaginary [sic] that was terrified of assimilation and ‘mixed marriage.’"
I grew up with these attitudes in American Jewish life. They’ve faded a lot since I was a kid. But in Israel they were memorialized in law. Later Sand writes that even the liberal secular Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak said, "A Jewish state is one in which Hebrew Law plays an important part, and in which the laws of marriage and divorce of Jews are based on the Torah."
So: This is what you get when you create a Jewish state. Gur says that a lot of Israelis end up having common-law marriages, and the society respects them. And maybe some of those folks are shacking up across religious lines? It hardly matters. The principle here is one that is obviously important to the state and that has a discriminatory impact.
Ralph Seliger, a progressive Zionist affiliated with Meretz, has allowed me to quote his own criticism of this legal situation.
Since there is no civil marriage in Israel, people of different religions cannot marry there. But if they go outside the country to marry, they can return as married couples.
Israel’s lack of provision for civil marriage is a "shanda" (shame) and must be changed. But it winds up victimizing many more Israeli Jews who don’t meet Orthodox standards for their "Jewishness" than it does the very few Israeli Palestinians who would marry Israeli Jews.
Meretz is not alone in attempting to change the law in this regard, by legislation. Avigdor Lieberman’s party also wants to remove the stranglehold of the Orthodox clergy on marriage (because many of his Russian immigrant constituents are not Jewish according to religious law). But Lieberman– in keeping with his racist agenda– wants to make it even more difficult for Jews and Arabs to marry.