In Jericho, a 'Wall' Might Fall For Israel's Betrothed Jews

For Jews, getting hitched in Israel is a bit complicated. Couples, even if secular, must have an Orthodox wedding. And a rabbi must check that neither one is blacklisted for such offenses as not keeping kosher.

Consequently, thousands of Israelis go to Cyprus or even America each year to take the plunge.

But now the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat may enable those unable to marry the Orthodox way to travel only a few miles to the West Bank town of Jericho to say "I do." The irony of Jews flocking to a Palestinian-controlled town to tie the knot points up a growing debate that's as old as modern Israel: It pits the Orthodox against more-liberal and secular Jews in deciding what it means to be Jewish.

More than just weddings, the Orthodox rabbinate controls all religious ceremonies in Israel (a woman, for example, cannot get a divorce without her husband's consent). And since elections in May when Orthodox political parties boosted their power in government, secular and non-Orthodox Jews have bucked even harder against their influence.

"We think Judaism is compatible with tolerance and pluralism," says Rabbi Andrew Sachs, director of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel Conservative Movement, who has been active in fighting for religious freedom. "We are opposed to religious coercion.

"The problem is the Orthodox want sole control over the definition of who is a Jew."

To the Orthodox, the strict measures are necessary to uphold Torah law, or Jewish holy law. To them the interpretations of the law by the more-liberal branches of Judaism - Reform and Conservative - are "corrupt, falsified, and erroneous."

"For us, marriage by Reform or Conservative [rabbis] is not a real marriage," says Rabbi Hanan Porat, a member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, from the Orthodox National Religious Party. "After the celebration it's like nothing happened. They think they are married, but they are not."

Marriage and the law

Most Israelis could be married the Orthodox way. But many consider themselves secular and balk at the Orthodox control over marriage rites as an intrusion on their lives.

A number are turned away by the official rabbinate because they are not fit to be married according to Jewish law. For example, the official rabbinate won't marry those with the last name Cohen to a divorcee. This is because Cohens are assumed to be descendants of the priestly caste, whose members weren't allowed to wed divorced women.

Many Reform or Conservative Jews would rather be married by a rabbi of their own denomination. For the 10 to 15 percent of Israelis who choose this route, the state's nonrecognition of their vows leaves them officially unmarried and ineligible for tax breaks, mortgage reductions, and other state perks.

But the Jericho option may provide an easy solution for these secular and non-Orthodox Jews.

Conceived soon after the desert oasis was handed over to Palestinians in 1994, the concept rests on the premise that as a separate legal entity, Palestinians can promulgate separate marriage laws, which would then be recognized by Israel. Still in its infancy, the idea must pass several hurdles before it becomes viable.

Palestinian Authority Justice Minister Freih Abu Middain says he expects civil ceremonies to be available "within one month." All that's needed is an executive order from President Arafat.

Trouble on Jericho issue

But the issue has touched off a fierce debate. An Orthodox member of the Knesset finance committee threatened to prevent the transfer of Israeli aid to the Palestinian Authority if it makes civil marriage available to Israelis.

And Palestinian Religious Affairs Minister Hassan Tahboub blasted the procedure as "far from religion and the holy relationship between husband and wife."

Even if Jericho marriages are allowed, success in getting Israel to recognize them will require a nimble run through a legal obstacle course, lawyers say. The legal question is expected to center on whether Israel can reject marriage certificates from territories that are not independent states.

Meanwhile, a solution may be a long way off. Though they make up no more than 20 percent of the population, Israel's religious parties made strong gains in the May election. And advocates of religious pluralism complain that the Orthodox monopoly on marriage calls into question the delicate balance that makes the state both Jewish and democratic.

"If democracy is to be taken seriously, it should be taken in the context of a system of government which protects minority rights," says Uri Regev, a lawyer with the Reform Movement's Religious Action Center in Jerusalem, which fights for religious freedom.

Advocates of religious freedom plan to force the issue. "The government cannot be in a position where so many of its citizens cannot marry," says Rabbi Sachs. "There will have to be a solution and that solution will probably be civil marriage."

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