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Liberals, Russians Boo Civil-Marriage Deal

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.

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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