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Nancy Polikoff: Israel, Civil Marriage, and Valuing All Families

Today's post is from Nancy Polikoff, author of Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. Polikoff is a Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, where she teaches Sexuality and the Law and has taught Family Law for more than 20 years. This post originally appeared at her Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage blog.

Book Cover for Beyond (Straight and Gay) MarriageEarlier this week, Tel Aviv University was the site of the 9th annual queer studies conference An Other Sex. I was honored to deliver a keynote on my book, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage.

Israel has a distinctive legal regime within which to consider same-sex relationships. There is no civil marriage in Israel, only religious marriage. This keeps many straight couples from marrying because, for example, a Jew cannot marry a non-Jew. So there has been pressure for years for different-sex couples to not make marriage the dividing line between relationships that count and those that don't.

Israel recognizes the legal status of those "known in public" as spouses. It also allows couples to register foreign marriages (they say Cyprus does a thriving business marrying different-sex couples who can't marry in Israel). Because of this (after much litigation), Israel will register the marriages of same-sex couples who marry elsewhere and will recognize same-sex unmarried couples in ways that are similar to those accorded unmarried different-sex couples.

There is a push for civil marriage here -- but it would be for different-sex couples only. So this is not a good thing for lesbian and gay families.

Tel Aviv University law professor Aeyal Gross gave comments after my talk. He opposes the fight for same-sex marriage for many reasons. He believes that same-sex marriage stigmatizes those who don't marry and who have "less or more" than one partner. He believes it reinforces the privileging of marriage, creates pressure to marry, subordinates sexual liberty, and excludes those without a partner even more than today's construct.

In my book, I say that if marriage was not the dividing line between relationships the law counts and those it doesn't then marriage would be a real choice. (I say it is a choice in Canada because no couple has to marry there for legal consequences, even though both straight and gay couples can marry). Aeyal Gross questions whether marriage will really be a choice given the pressure it will produce. He supports ending state marriage. He says he has some sympathy for civil unions or civil partnerships.

I support renaming the official status for all couples "civil partnership." I did not think of this as the same as abolishing marriage, but as I said in a previous post, many American marriage equality activists object to this and consider it no different from abolishing marriage. I now think that Aeyal and I are not far apart and that we are both quite distant from the marriage equality party line about the imperative of keeping the label "marriage" as part of civil law for gay and straight couples.

In my talk at the conference, I read excerpts from the California marriage briefs filed by gay rights groups extolling the word "marriage." (For my post on this, read here). There were audible gasps of disbelief from the audience.

I have often heard that it is more accepted to criticize the Israeli government in Israel than it is in the US. I wouldn't know how to quantify either exactly, but criticism of the Israel government policy towards Palestinians was woven into remarks and questions at this queer theory conference. One speaker compared the resistance by the marginalized queers who rebelled at Stonewall to resistance against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Another spoke out against bills now pending in the Knesset. One would require as a condition of citizenship a "pledge of allegiance" to Israel as a Jewish state. Another would make it unlawful to observe what the state of Israel calls Israeli Independence Day as a day of commemoration of the Nakba (translated "catastrophe") which is how the Palestinians view it. One audience member began a question to me about the politics of supporting surrogacy for gay men (where multiple oppresions may be involved) with a comparison of the question she was about to ask me to the question of whether a person who is a Jewish settler in the West Bank can be considered a feminist.

All in all, an amazing experience.