Israel Won’t Legalize Gay Marriage. Here’s Why.

Nitzan Horowitz
Nitzan Horowitz wanted to be the Middle East’s first openly gay mayor.

Photo by Reuters//Nir Elias

“A Gay City Deserves a Gay Mayor,” proclaimed an ad for candidate Nitzan Horowitz during Tel Aviv’s most recent mayoral election in October. “One Vote That Sends Five Gays to the Council,” said another, referring to the Meretz Party list. In this contest between challenger Horowitz and popular incumbent Ron Huldai (which Huldai won), the candidates were said to be trying to “out-pink” each other, both “promising to increase budgets for the gay community and social services for gay youth in distress,” Ha’aretz’s Avshalom Halutz reported.

Does that mean Israel is a beacon of LGBTQ rights in a region generally hostile to them? Not quite.

As the Tel Aviv election illustrates, gay Israelis have made significant legal and cultural strides throughout the last few decades. The ban on homosexual sodomy was repealed in 1988; an ENDA-style LGBTQ employment-discrimination ban passed in 1992; and gays have been able to serve openly in the military since 1993. Tel Aviv has become something of a haven for gay Israelis, even playing host to one of the world’s largest Pride festivals, blessed by Mayor Huldai and other national political figures.

The gains are great—but so are the challenges. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel concludes that the LGBTQ community “still faces various forms of discrimination by government authorities and in the private sector.” In terms of societal attitudes, a recent Israel Democracy Institute survey revealed that it would bother 30.5 percent of Israeli Jews and 46.2 percent of Israeli Arabs to have a homosexual couple as neighbours, including 68.4 percent of ultra-Orthodox and 48.4 percent of religious Zionist Jews.

Enter the marriage conundrum. In Israel, all valid marriages conducted abroad are recognized by the state, and foreign same-sex marriages are recorded for statistical purposes. That means a gay couple that weds in, say, the Netherlands remains wed in Israel. But that doesn’t mean a gay couple in Tel Aviv can walk down to city hall and procure a marriage license. Marriage is an exclusively religious institution in Israel, with separate religious authorities for Jews and Muslims, Christians and Druze. For Israeli Jews, marriage policy is dictated by the Chief Rabbinate, which is under the exclusive control of the Orthodox—and firmly opposed to gay marriage. Since the country has no civil marriage, gay couples seeking to marry within the borders of Israel are out of luck (as are any Jewish Israelis seeking a non-Orthodox marriage ceremony).

This arrangement—whereby marriage is in the control of the Orthodox rabbinate—is part of what Israelis call the status quo: an understanding between secular and religious Jews regarding the balance between religion and state. The status quo affects not only marriage, but also the education system, family law, supervision of kosher restaurants, and the opening of shops and public transportation on shabbat.

Altering the status quo, particularly concerning something as delicate as marriage, is the third rail of Israeli politics. This is not only because of the power and importance of ultra-Orthodox parties in the Israeli political system, but also due to a fear that changing the status quo would lead to the encroachment of secular values upon the religious—and vice-versa. Among Israel’s many political parties, only Meretz—a left-wing, social democratic faction—proposes to upend the status quo entirely by separating religion from state and legalising civil marriage.

What the other political parties that represent secular interests discuss instead are civil unions under civil law that could, in theory, exist as a separate track alongside religious marriage. In the current government, Yesh Atid—a centrist party led by Finance Minister Yair Lapid—plans to introduce a bill that would legalize civil unions, including same-sex unions. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister, is promoting  another bill that would allow for “domestic unions” between same-sex couples, thereby granting legal standing to an agreement between two residents of Israel to live together.

But these proposals will almost certainly fail. Under the terms of the current coalition agreement, Jewish Home—a right-wing, religious Zionist party—not only controls the Ministry of Religious Services but insisted on a clause that mandates that all governing parties must be in agreement when it comes to changing the balance between religion and state. And Jewish Home’s position on the matter is clear: “There’s not a chance we’ll allow civil unions for gay couples,” a senior party official told Ha’aretz.

The leader of the opposition, the Labor Party’s Shelly Yachimovich, has signalled her intention to introduce a bill legalizing civil unions, but without government support it’s practically dead on arrival. “Bills that aren’t backed by the ministerial committee on legislation”—which decides whether the governing coalition will support or oppose a bill—“almost never pass,” Lahav Harkov, Knesset reporter for he Jerusalem Post told me. She added that without the support of other parties, the secular center-left does not have the votes required to pass the bill.

While there is some chance of a compromise on civil unions for heterosexual couples, the situation for LGBTQ Israelis will continue to remain unresolved. Never mind gay marriage, it’s very unlikely that even same-sex civil unions will be made legal, at least during the life of this current government.