Sunday, July 22, 2007

Marriage in Israel: Glad tidings for the lepers


Didn't it used to be that if someone was "known in their community" to be Jewish, they were considered Jewish? Most people didn't flee the holocaust, get thrown out of Arab lands, or escape communism with their grandmother's Ketubah under their arm.

It seems a new religion of paperwork has been created

By Avirama Golan

Two months ago, Y. and his girlfriend went to the rabbinic court in their community. They wanted to register there to be married. No problem, he was told, just prove you are a Jew. Y. was flabbergasted. He arrived in Israel with his parents as a circumcised Jewish child, celebrated his bar mitzvah at the age of 13 and served in the Israel Defense Forces. He had never entertained the possibility that someone in his family might not be a Jew. Prove it, the rabbinate insisted. Although Y. conducted a thorough search, he was unable to find his parents' papers. The Soviet authorities had not given them their original birth certificates or even copies of them. Finally, he found several copies of Ukrainian documents pertaining to relatives on his mother's side, all of whom were Jewish. That's not enough, he was told: We do not trust the Ukrainians.

At the end of last week, following an urgent request from the rabbis of Shorashim (Roots: The Center for Assistance in Proving Jewish Ancestry), an organization that seeks to bridge religious-secular differences, the rabbi of the city of Nikolaev presented the birth certificate of Y.'s mother to the Israeli consul-general in Ukraine. That document, together with other documents and family photographs ("They all have a very distinctive Jewish appearance," one of the rabbis noted), will probably allow Y. and his partner to be married in a Jewish religious ceremony and be registered as a married couple in the Population Registry.

But what would have happened if the consul-general had not visited Nikolaev this week, or if Rabbi Shalom Gottlieb had not been able to find the birth certificate? And what would have happened if the rabbinic court in Tel Aviv had declined to recognize the document's authenticity? In that case, Y. would have been declared a person "without religion." It is precisely for those who fall into this category that Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar devised the new draft legislation, which will allow those "without religion" to get married in a civil ceremony in Israel.


However, the Friedmann-Amar bill will only make it possible for those without religion to marry one another. Y.'s girlfriend immigrated from Russia and converted to Judaism. According to her ID card, she now is a Jew. However, if Y. had been declared someone without religion, he would not have been able to marry his girlfriend - not in the rabbinate and not in a Friedmann-Amar-type civil marriage.

The case of Y. is just one example of the absurdity of Friedmann's decision to partake of the stew which Rabbi Amar cooked up so cleverly. Friedmann apparently thought he would be able to alleviate the suffering of Jews who are "not recognized" by the Orthodox establishment. However, Amar scored a triple success: His proposal strengthens the Orthodox monopoly in marital matters, torpedoes various proposals to introduce civil marriage made by liberal bodies, and consolidates the racist dichotomy between Jews and "all the others." Glad tidings for the lepers: From now on they will be able to marry each other as long as they do not intermingle with pure Jews.

But Amar's more significant achievement lies in a minor remark that appears in the agreement: "At the same time, the authority of the Chief Rabbinate to establish special courts for conversion shall be recognized." Amar thus bypassed the High Court of Justice ruling that makes it obligatory to recognize conversions performed by the other streams of Judaism, which involve a brief visit abroad. He effectively buried the initiative of the Neeman Committee, which sought to bring about cooperation between the three streams, and further reinforced the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) establishment's hard hand against converts.

True, Friedmann is right in assuming that this is the most he can obtain, considering the present political alignment, but he is wrong in thinking that what he did is beneficial. It behooves liberals like him to strive for a complete separation between the Orthodox establishment and the state, and to work for the creation of a civil code free from religion, one that will allow anyone who so wishes to marry and have a family, without having to endure the humiliation of presenting proof of his parents' descent.

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