Why a county in Utah could play a role in Israel’s judicial crisis


(JTA) — Aaron Davidson has never been to Israel. He isn’t Jewish. He began serving in his position, Utah County clerk, just two months ago.

But the policies he oversees in his office in Provo, Utah, could have an impact more than 7,000 miles away — in the halls of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in Jerusalem.

That’s because Davidson is the top local official in a county that has, improbably, caused a seismic shift in the way marriages are legally recognized in the Jewish state. An ensuing court battle over the issue — which the Israeli government just lost — could provide added motivation for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pass controversial judicial reform that has already thrown the country into crisis.

Let’s take a step back and break this down.

How does marriage work in Israel?

Although a large chunk of Israeli Jews are secular, legal marriage in the country is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, which is haredi Orthodox. In other words, within Israel, the only way for a Jew to get legally married is through an Orthodox ceremony.

That means same-sex marriage, interfaith marriage and non-Orthodox weddings performed in Israel are not recognized by the Israeli government. Also left in limbo are hundreds of thousands of largely Russian-speaking Israelis, who are not Jewish according to traditional Jewish law and are therefore unable to get married in Israel.

But there’s a loophole of sorts: Marriages performed and recognized abroad also get recognized in Israel. So for decades, non-Orthodox Israelis have found a workaround to those restrictions by taking a short flight to Cyprus to tie the knot, or traveling farther afield for their weddings. They then bring their marriage certificate to Israel complete with a stamp of authentication (called an apostille), and voila: legally married.

What does that have to do with Utah?

Starting in 2020, Utah County, Utah, began recognizing marriages performed entirely via videoconference, as long as the officiant or one of the parties was in the county. The county encompasses the area surrounding Provo, which is home to Brigham Young University and has a tech scene. Officials saw the new remote marriage system as a way to make it easier to “execute a permission slip from the government for two consenting adults to get married,” as former County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner told The New York Times,

The innovation coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and beginning later that year, Israelis realized they could now get legally married in Utah without having to leave Israel — in fact, without having to leave their living rooms. Since 2020, Davidson estimates that more than 1,000 Israelis have taken advantage of the remote weddings. The fees for the remote wedding total a maximum of $155.

“The technology now opens a window of opportunity for thousands of Israeli couples every year to quickly, simply, cheaply gain civil marriage without leaving their homes,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush, an Israeli organization that advocates for religious pluralism. “That in and of itself is a real breakthrough.”

(Israelis aren’t the only foreign nationals to use the county’s remote wedding option. It has also been a boon for gay couples from China.)

How have Israeli officials responded?

They are not happy about it. The acting Israeli interior minister, Michael Malchieli, is a member of the haredi Orthodox Shas party, and had refused to recognize the Utah marriage certificates, as did a predecessor of his, arguing that the marriages took place in Israel. A predecessor of his had also refused to recognize the certificates, but last year, a court ruled that the government must recognize the Utah marriages.

That decision made its way to Israel’s Supreme Court which, on Tuesday, ruled unanimously in favor of the married couples. Henceforth, their marriages will officially be seen as valid in Israel. The court made a similar decision in 2006 that compelled the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad.

“It is the duty of the [Israeli] registrar to refrain from making decisions regarding the validity or invalidity of the marriages themselves,” the court wrote in a summary of its decision on Tuesday. “When the registrar is presented with a proper public document, he must, as a rule, register it accordingly and refrain from making decisions regarding complicated legal matters.”

How is this related to Israel’s current crisis?

Israel is currently in the throes of a raucous national debate over legislation being pushed by Netanyahu’s government that would effectively sap the Supreme Court of much of its power. One bill would allow a simple majority of Israeli lawmakers to override court decisions, meaning they could negate decisions like the one handed down this week.

Proponents of the court reform say the legislation will allow Israeli law to more effectively represent the will of the country’s right-wing majority. Another Shas lawmaker, Moshe Arbel, cited Tuesday’s decision as a reason why the court reform is urgent.

“The high court, in another political step, proved once again how necessary the judicial reform is,” Arbel said, according to the Israeli publication Ynet. The decision, he said, works to “erase the Jewish identity of the state.”

How do officials in Utah feel?

Initially, it seemed Davidson, the county clerk, might do away with the virtual marriages. His campaign website said that “This online option devalues the union of a marriage and Utah County should not be the entity that facilitates the marginalization of marriage.”

But since taking office, he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, he has changed his mind. His concern, he said, was that abusers could take advantage of the virtual weddings to facilitate underage marriage and human trafficking. Now he realizes that that has not been an issue, and he is working on upgrading the county’s facial recognition software to forestall that possibility.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s any controversial marriages that want to happen in Israel, so I’m totally open in keeping that open and alive,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid any hint of child marriages or forced marriages or trafficking. We want to make sure that we know who it is that’s getting married before we perform the marriage online.”

Alex Shapiro, the executive director of the United Jewish Federation of Utah, is likewise happy about the Supreme Court decision. “[I] fully stand behind the decision to make civil marriage available to all citizens,” Shapiro told JTA. “I’m further pleased that the state of Utah can play a role in these unions without the challenge of couples needing to travel out of the county to be married.”

Davidson’s county, however, has few Jews and a politically conservative population. It is the home of the flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which opposes same-sex marriage.

Davidson, who is a member of the LDS church, said that he has heard a few objections from residents about facilitating same-sex marriages abroad. But he told JTA that he feels the virtual marriages uphold another core conservative tenet: limited government.

“Government restricts who can live where, in what country, and I kind of feel the same thing about marriage,” he said. “Why do I feel like I have the power to prevent a couple — whether same-sex or traditional — [from] being able to be happy with their life, and do what they want? That’s kind of been a guiding principle: Why should I have the power to control the happiness of somebody else?”