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Sunday, 19 August 2007

Liberals, Russians Boo Civil-Marriage Deal

Liberals, Russians Boo Civil-Marriage Deal

Andrew Friedman | Wed. Jul 25, 2007
Jerusalem - An agreement reached last week between Israel's chief
Sephardic rabbi and the state's justice minister has been hailed for
opening the door to civil marriages in Israel, but secular and
non-Orthodox groups who have long fought to change the country's
marriage laws say that the deal does little to alleviate the plight of
hundreds of thousands of immigrants who cannot prove they are Jewish.
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The agreement between Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Justice Minister
Daniel Friedmann would allow civil marriages for Israelis who are not
considered Jewish by Halacha, or rabbinic law. It also calls for the
Chief Rabbinate to establish special conversion courts, but emphasizes
that both the conversion procedure and the religious commitment required
of potential converts would remain unchanged.
The civil option would be available only to couples in which both
partners are not Jewish. Proponents of civil marriage, led by the
Russian-immigrant political parties as well by as liberal politicians
and rabbis, argue that the deal ignores the plight of the roughly
300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are ineligible to
marry under existing Israeli law, which grants the Chief Rabbinate
exclusive rights over marriage and divorce.
"This is not a civil-marriage bill," said Rabbi Yoram Mazor, secretary
general of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis, which is the
rabbinical arm of the Reform movement in Israel. "It is a fictitious
solution for less than one-third of the immigrants from the former
Soviet Union. Even if both partners in a potential marriage are Russian,
this agreement does not help if the rabbinate considers one Jewish and
one a non-Jew."
In a press release issued last week by the Justice Ministry, Friedmann
acknowledged the limits of the agreement but said that it represents a
"meaningful step toward expanding marriage rights in Israel."
Mazor rejected Friedmann's assertion, saying that the agreement stands
to further isolate Russian immigrants and hinder their integration into
Israeli society. "Essentially, this agreement will create a ghetto in
which non-Jewish immigrants can get married, but only to each other," he
said.
Each year, hundreds of mixed-faith and non-halachically Jewish couples
fly to nearby Cyprus for a civil ceremony because they do not meet
Orthodox standards for marriage. Several hundred Israelis who do not
want to bow to the rabbinate's requirements also make the trip overseas
to tie the knot.
David Rotem, a Knesset member from the Russian-immigrant Yisrael
Beiteinu party, stressed that at the moment, the deal is still only a
private agreement between Friedmann and Amar. He promised that the
Knesset members representing Russian-immigrant voters would oppose
certain parts of the agreement if it comes to the floor for a vote.
"If this is a first step toward full civil-marriage rights in Israel, we
certainly welcome that, and it would be great to provide a solution for
the 5,000-or-so people who want to get married but currently have to
travel to Cyprus in order to do so," Rotem told the Forward. "But the
agreement also calls for transferring even more authority to the
rabbinate for conversion matters. That is totally unacceptable, and we
will oppose that section of the legislation if and when it comes up in
the Knesset."
Immigrants who cannot prove that they are halachically Jewish represent
the largest category of Israelis ineligible to marry, according to Seth
Farber, an Orthodox rabbi and head of ITIM, an organization that assists
Israelis encountering difficulties with the conversion and marriage
processes. Each year, more than 1,000 Israelis seeking official
recognition of their Jewishness are rejected because they cannot meet
the rabbinate's standards of proof; according to ITIM in 2006 more than
a quarter of applicants were rejected.
"The marriage issue is the biggest scandal I can think of," Farber said.
The agreement "won't help many simple people who just want to get
married. But it will help a few thousand per year. That's a good thing."

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