Israel Wrestles With How — or Whether — To Recognize Gay Couples

As Interior Ministry Dallies, One Couple Prepares for a High Court Challenge

Seeking Reconition: Joshua Goldberg, left, and Bayardo Alvarez were married in Canada. But Israel’s Interior Ministry has yet to respond to Alvarez’s request for citizenship.
Courtesy of Joshua Goldberg
Seeking Reconition: Joshua Goldberg, left, and Bayardo Alvarez were married in Canada. But Israel’s Interior Ministry has yet to respond to Alvarez’s request for citizenship.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published July 18, 2011, issue of July 29, 2011.
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As New York prepares to inaugurate same-sex marriage on July 24, two men married to each other 5,500 miles away are fighting a battle for the rights of Jewish men and women in Israel who take advantage of the new law and others like it.

Just as every Jew has the right to immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship under the Law of Return, so does his or her “spouse,” even if that spouse is not Jewish. But whether Israel would honor this for same-sex as well as heterosexual couples has never been tested.

Now, an American Jewish man has given Israel’s Interior Ministry, which is controlled by the Haredi Shas party, a July 31 deadline to give his husband citizenship. The couple’s alternative is a high court petition for citizenship, which legal experts believe will likely succeed.

This has made Joshua Goldberg furious. His local Jewish Agency office told him that his husband, Bayardo Alvarez, could have citizenship, but when the couple’s visas came through in February, Goldberg received citizenship, yet Alvarez received only temporary residency.

The two married four years ago in Canada and moved to Israel from Baltimore on June 10, but the Interior Ministry has yet to respond to Alvarez’s 4-month-old appeal to change his status to citizen. “The lack of decision making at the Interior Ministry has made our absorption here very difficult, and in some ways it feels very unwelcoming,” Goldberg told the Forward.

The Interior Ministry responded in a statement to questions from the Forward, saying that the matter is still “under examination” because this is the first request of its kind. The ministry added that it regrets the “mental anguish” that the uncertainty is causing the couple.

There is no same-sex marriage in Israel, but the state does recognize, for some administrative purposes, same-sex marriages performed overseas. In 2006, Israel’s high court issued a precedent-setting ruling that five gay couples already residing in Israel but wed overseas could be registered as married couples in Israel.

The attorney who petitioned for that ruling, Dan Yakir, told the Forward that granting citizenship to the immigrant spouse of a gay resident is an extension of the earlier ruling’s logic and in the spirit of other legal advances for same-sex couples. “Based on jurisprudence over the last 15 years, this would be the proper interpretation of the law,” said Yakir, who is chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

For Goldberg and Alvarez, their fight is a point of principle, but also a highly practical matter. When they arrived in June, Alvarez was ineligible for all but one of the state-funded absorption programs to which those immigrating under the Law of Return are entitled — a Jewish Agency course in Eilat that combines hotel work with Hebrew study. Goldberg and Alvarez — a 40-year-old marketing professional and a 33-year-old florist, respectively — enrolled but found that classes were currently on a break, so they left after three weeks.

If Alvarez were an immigrant coming in under the Law of Return, the couple could have benefited from subsidized housing and acculturation workshops at one of the state’s “absorption centers,” which are located across the country. Instead, since leaving Eilat, they are renting an apartment at their own expense in Tel Aviv. Alvarez is ineligible for state-funded Hebrew classes. And instead of receiving 33,110 shekels ($9,500) between them in state assistance for relocating, they receive 17,368 shekels ($5,000) as a payment to Goldberg alone.

The couple’s lawyer, Nicky Maor of the Israel Religious Action Center, the lobbying arm of the Reform movement, said that they are victims of “illegal discrimination.” She commented, “As the Law of Return uses the word ‘spouse’ as opposed to citizenship laws, which use the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife,’ here there’s not even any interpretation needed and there’s no basis for distinguishing between heterosexual and same-sex marriage.”

Legal experts believe that if the Interior Ministry does not meet the couple’s July 31 deadline and the two petition the high court, judges will be hard-pressed to reject them. Tel Aviv University law professor Aeyal Gross, an expert on constitutional law and gay and lesbian rights, said that the argument would be particularly difficult to undermine, as Israel has a history of recognizing marriages that it doesn’t allow to be performed in its jurisdiction.

There is no civil marriage in Israel. But since long before Yakir’s 2006 petition, Israelis who want a civil marriage or need one — usually immigrants from the former Soviet bloc who are not Jewish — have wed in Cyprus, had their unions registered by Israel and received the rights of any other married couple. In view of this and the 2006 ruling recognizing same-sex marriages between Israeli citizens registered outside Israel, “I don’t see any viable justification the state could come up with to discriminate here,” Gross said.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com.


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