No easy solution to the civil marriage dilemma with Israel’s gold medal

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It was an epic Olympic Games for Israel. The Jewish state team won a record four medals at the Tokyo Olympics, including two gold. For a small country which, thanks to the anti-Semitism and hostility of much of the Arab and Islamic world, is considered worthy of extinction, even in places as distinguished as The New York Times, the international recognition that accompanies these sporting triumphs is very important.

Even those who don’t care about gymnastics, taekwondo or judo should see Israeli medals as more than just a tribute to the people who have won them. They are also a stick in the eye of anyone who wants to wipe Israel off the map and see Israelis taking part in the games, not to mention the scenes of the blue and white flag hoisted while “Hatikvah” is played in Tokyo, as intolerable. .

That this record took place during the games when the International Olympic Committee did the right thing and finally reserved a minute of silence during the opening ceremony, as well as a separate memorial, to remember the 11 Israelis who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists in Munich in 1972 was suitable. This is something he has failed to do for 48 years due to the deference the IOC and the rest of the international community have always shown to the sensibilities of the Palestinians, who view the murderers as heroes.

But the principle that Israel’s critics can twist any event, no matter how positive, into a black eye on public relations for the Jewish state still applies to these Olympics. The first of Israel’s two gold medalists, gymnast Artem Dolgopyat, recalled not only his country’s status as a growing power in sport, but also its regrettable lack of civil marriage.

In a story that to some extent spoiled the good feelings that his victory in the men’s floor exercise had aroused in his country, the fact that Dolgopyat could not marry his fiancée in Israel became a famous cause. Although neither the Olympian nor his future was the subject even when the press pressed him after his triumphant return home, his mother’s complaints made headlines.

As the medalist’s mother, Angela Bilan, said: “Israel will claim Olympic gold from my son but will not let him get married here.

While that sums up a complex legal and religious dilemma a little too simply, she is right. The 24-year-old athlete did alyah with his family 12 years ago from Belarus. They were eligible for citizenship upon arrival due to the country’s law of return, which guarantees a home to anyone with a Jewish grandparent, a fitting retort to Nazi rule that all such people were sentenced to died during the Holocaust. Since Artem’s father, Oleg, himself a gymnast, was Jewish, the whole family qualified.

This meant that the future Olympian had not only become a Hebrew citizen of the Jewish state, but, like most Israelis other than ultra-Orthodox or Arabs, who are exempt but also served in the Israel Defense Forces.

The problem, however, is that Artem’s mother is not Jewish. So while he had a life indistinguishable from that of millions of other secular Israelis, the medalist was also not a Jew under halacha (religious law), which only recognizes people whose mothers are Jewish or converts certified as Jewish. And since all events in the Jewish life cycle, including marriage, are controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate under the laws of the land, he cannot be married to his Jewish bride in Israel.

Israel recognizes marriages or civil unions that take place elsewhere, so it is possible for Artem to simply go abroad to get married. But given his comprehensive training and competition schedule (not to mention COVID-19-related travel restrictions) over the last few years leading up to the Olympics, he has yet to realize it, which has caused her mother, who divorced her father in 2012, to make it a public broadcast.

Israel’s detractors picked up on history, and it provided a little more food for those who see the Jewish state as an oppressor always in error.

Dolgopyat is not alone in facing this dilemma; 400,000 or more Israeli citizens are estimated to be in the same boat. After more than 70 years of discrimination, the rates of intermarriage among Jews in the former Soviet Union were very high. The mass alyah which began after the fall of the Communist Empire brought with it many people who wanted to be Israelis, although they did not have the good religious faith to be listed as Jewish on their state ID cards .

Since then, there have been efforts to create an easier or at least more manageable conversion process that would pave the way for the recognition of their Jewish identity for these Israeli citizens, especially the many who served in the IDF. But all of these efforts have met with intransigence by the rabbinate and their facilitators in religious political parties that have disproportionate influence in Israel’s dysfunctional political system.

It is possible to argue that a majority of Israelis would support the institution of a form of civil marriage beyond the reach of religious authorities. This is a far more popular idea than efforts to promote religious pluralism and the recognition of Reform or conservative movements of Judaism alongside the Orthodox, as desired by many Jews in the Diaspora. And there are plenty of Knesset members, including those in positions of power in the current government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who would like to change a system that allows no separation between religion and the state as we know it. that in the United States. Still, this is unlikely to happen.

This is partly explained by electoral politics.

Bennett’s Yamina Party is a stronghold for modern Orthodox with little love for the rabbinate now dominated by ultras in black hats rather than knitwear kipahs worn by the Prime Minister and those who agree with him. But it is unrealistic to expect Bennett to join with both leftists and secular Jews, like those in Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu party, which advocates for Russians like Dolgopyat’s. Lapid and other members of the government say they wanted to push civil marriage in the wake of the Olympic controversy. But Bennett was visibly silent. The same is true of his main antagonist, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is himself secular and obtains the votes of many non-religious Israelis, but who knows that his only path to power will be through his alliance with the Israelis. ultra-Orthodox.

Religious parties and their supporters claim that throwing away Israel’s existing system that subsidizes and strengthens recognized religious denominations, and in particular Orthodox Judaism, would undermine the identity of the Jewish state. They also believe that creating a quick and easy method to convert Russians and others who live by the Jewish calendar and are ready to lay down their lives for Israel would undermine both the faith and the Jewish people.

This is a weak argument. The rabbinate’s stranglehold on religious identity has brought nothing but discredit to Judaism in the eyes of most Israelis, no matter how observant they are. Indeed, one need only look in the United States, where there has never been a state religion, to see how the suppression of the government of the faith has created a much more religious population than in countries where there is had one, including some in Europe. , where state religions once predominated or, as in Britain, still exist.

Giving the Israelis an option for civil marriage would eliminate or at least diminish the power of the institution that most discredits the Jewish faith, as well as the annoyance of its official standard bearers.

But like many elements that are for the most part built into the system that empowers the Orthodox (such as the composition of the Knesset decided by proportional representation), abandoning this unhealthy mixture of state and religion is just too much for them to do. political parties that have other priorities. And undermining it through an Israeli Supreme Court activist who thinks he should have the power to legislate as well as enforce existing laws is unlikely to create an outcome that will be accepted.

This leaves Israelis like Dolgopyat in an awkward position and gives critics of the Jewish state yet another problem to skin them with. While the advocacy for change is well justified, we must never lose sight of the fact that for all its imperfections and problems, the purpose of a Jewish state was to provide a safe haven for people like the medalist. and his family who needed to get out of countries where Jews have no future or face varying degrees of oppression. If, despite the rabbinate’s opinion on his Jewish identity, Artem Dolgopyat still considers himself a proud Israeli, this should signal all of us not to take this admittedly difficult question out of context and allow it to be used as a another pretext for anti-Semites who would willingly place both halakhic Jews and those whose claims to Jewish identity are disputed at risk.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.


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