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.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.