MONTREAL — The absence of civil marriage and divorce in Israel is inconsistent with democracy, a respected Israeli legal scholar says.
Hebrew University law professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, second from left, was a guest lecturer at the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. With him, from left, are Monette Malewski, president of the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University’s Montreal chapter; Lewis Dobrin, the group’s immediate past president; and McGill professor Harold Waller, a Friends board member. [PBL Photo]
Hebrew University law professor Mordechai Kremnitzer said recently at McGill University that the monopoly the rabbinical courts have over these areas is “a significant democratic deficit” and an infringement on the freedoms of religion and equality.
The State of Israel, from its creation, has resisted becoming a theocracy or being governed by Halachah, or Jewish law, in all other areas, he noted.
For one thing, he said, Jewish law is “clearly discriminatory against women.
“And due to political manoeuvring, the majority of judges on rabbinical courts are ultra-Orthodox, with extreme views on conversion and the status of women.”
Increasingly, young couples are going outside Israel to get married, or are living together unwed, he said.
Kremnitzer, a former dean of law and expert in constitutional law, said a possible “compromise” solution is establishing a “state registrar of couples,” which would not sanction civil marriage, but create a type of union that would have all the same rights and duties as that status. Ideally, he added, this option should also be open to same-sex couples, but he doubted that would ever pass in the Knesset.
Kremnitzer made the remarks in a lecture at McGill’s law faculty titled “What is a Jewish and Democratic State?” It was sponsored by the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism and the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Montreal chapter.
Kremnitzer, who is also a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, highlighted a number of other weakness in his country’s democracy.
The whole notion of “Who is a Jew?” has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years in Israel, especially since the influx of more than 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, he said.
Many of them are not Jewish according to Halachah, but they call themselves Jews and serve, and often die, in the defence of Israel, he continued.
“What’s more they are perceived by others as Jews – by nationality,” he said. “This is a dramatic development that is breaking down the historic ties between Jewish religious and national identity.”
Yet, these non-halachic Jews do not enjoy full “de facto” rights, he said,
He suggested that Israel should introduce “separate national and religious definitions of being a Jew: recognizing a new kind of Jew, not religious, but accepted as Jews from a national point of view.”
He said Israel is also failing to extend true equality to its Arab citizens.
“It has to be admitted that Israel has not fulfilled its commitment to act in a way that is not discriminatory against its non-Jewish citizens,” he said. “The fact that Israel defines itself as a Jewish state… is seen as a justification to discriminate against Arabs.”
Kremnitzer also argued that “Israel will not be able to remain a Jewish and democratic state unless there is a Palestinian state.
“We can’t reconcile a prolonged military occupation and the denial of one million people’s political and civil rights [with democracy or Jewish ethics],” he said.
The existence of a Palestinian state would also improve the situation of Arabs living in Israel proper, he said.
“One of the reasons Israeli Arabs are not treated as they should be is because they are considered compatriots of the people who are at war with Israel. If the external conflict is resolved, it would be easier to treat [Arabs] equally.”
Kremnitzer, who was born in a German displaced persons camp in 1948, is a visiting fellow this fall at McGill’s law school, where he is teaching a seminar called “Terrorism and Democracy.”