A vote on the Tzohar law has been officially postponed until the summer Knesset plenum session, following threats of a vote of no-confidence by the United Torah Judaism party, an integral member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.
There is no civil marriage in Israel, and the Tzohar movement seeks to undo the monopoly the ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbinate has in officiating Jewish weddings. The Tzohar bill, sponsored by MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) and MK Faina Kirschenbaum (Yisrael Beitenu), and pushed by the Tzohar movement, would cut red tape for couples who wish to obtain a marriage license by allowing them to register directly with any one of the 14 marriage registration offices across the country, rather than be at the mercy of their designated local rabbinate.
The ultra-Orthodox Web portal “Hadarei Haredim” reported on Thursday that if the bill were to be put to the Knesset for a vote, the United Torah Judaism party would sabotage Netanyahu’s coalition. The party’s sentiments were expressed in a letter addressed to Coalition Chairman MK Zeev Elkin and Netanyahu, saying “this is a serious violation of the coalition agreement and the status-quo.”
In the letter, United Torah Judaism Chairman MK Israel Eichler added, “As I have already expressed verbally, the members of the United Torah Judaism faction want to make it clear that we view the bill by MKs Schneller and Kirschenbaum on marriage and divorce as an attempt to weaken the status of the rabbinate and circumvent the laws of marriage and divorce.”
This is just another chapter in the Tzohar debate that has been ongoing since Nov. 2011, when the Rabbinate shut down Tzohar’s free wedding services. Tzohar initially said that Religious Services Minister Ya’akov Margi (Shas) recently decided, “for economic and political reasons,” to shut down the group’s wedding project, possibly due to Tzohar’s enormous popularity diverting income away from ultra-Orthodox rabbis affiliated with the rabbinate who charge fees to officiate at weddings.
A number of ministers and Knesset members responded to the decision with outrage. Together with the political pressure, broad public outrage and support for Tzohar lifted the ultra-Orthodox embargo on Tzohar, who were allowed to reopen their operations. But this reprieve was short-lived.
Days after a compromise was reached between Margi and Tzohar, Israel’s top rabbinical authorities, including the Chief Rabbis of Israel, convened an emergency meeting on Nov. 15, 2011. They vowed to take harsh action against rabbis who conducted weddings without meeting the rabbinate’s criteria, which presented a united, political front against Tzohar. On Dec. 12, 2011, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened to prevent a Knesset plenum vote on the “Tzohar law,” hoping to avoid a coalition crisis with his ultra-Orthodox political partners. Last Monday, the law narrowly passed a vote in the Knesset’s Constitution Law and Justice Committee, but is currently stalled until the summer session.