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Artem Dolgopyat’s plight highlights Israel’s golden double standard

CM 05/08/2021 2

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Like the student who got an A in history and an F in math, Israel was this week simultaneously awash with pride and shame. 
The pride was over gymnast Artem Dolgopyat’s gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics. Watching the humble victor wrapped in a blue-and-white flag struggling for words in the face of the limelight that suddenly befell him, Israelis fell in love with this soft-spoken paragon of diligence, perfection and gift. 
The shame was about Artem’s inability to get married in the Jewish state, where he arrived from Ukraine as a child, labored to pick up Hebrew, served in the army and paid taxes for years along with his father, Oleg, a blue-collar worker in a printing press. 

Artem cannot get married here because his mother, Angela, unlike his father, is not Jewish, nor is Artem’s girlfriend of three years, Masha Sakovich, a translator into four languages whom he met during a competition in Belarus. 
The question therefore is what else needs to happen for this disgrace to end, and the answer is nothing: the need in civil marriages is glaring, an inventive formula for its legislation has been devised and the political setting begs its passage. 
ISRAEL NEEDS civil marriage for seven reasons. 
Morally, the current system violates thousands of citizens’ basic civil rights. Suffice it to say that Israel’s matrimonial system is in the company of Syria, Libya, and a cluster of other non-democracies, all in Muslim-majority lands. 
Emotionally, the current system insults citizens who feel ostracized, degraded and abused. 
Practically, the law’s intention, to make Israelis marry religiously, has failed. Israelis are anyhow marrying secularly en masse, whether by traveling to Cyprus or coupling unwed, a voting by the feet that shows the more ultra-Orthodox rabbis ignore reality the more reality ignores them. 
Historically, ultra-Orthodoxy’s rabbis refuse to concede that an immigrant like Artem Dolgopyat cannot be classified as a gentile; that the boy who landed here with his father, brother and their non-Jewish mother emerged from the ashes into which Hitler’s death squads turned the Jews of Ukraine. 
This column already discussed this traumatic history’s meaning for conversion (“Conversion: The next phase,” June 1, 2020), which is that partial Jews’ path to their people should be simpler than a complete newcomer’s. In terms of matrimonial law, the partial Jews’ history demands that we allow civil marriages not only for the sake of human rights, but also for the sake of Jewish justice. 
Strategically, the partial Jews who arrived here a generation ago have since proven to be a blessing for Israeli society in every conceivable sense: economically, technologically, culturally, academically, you name it. We need them no less than we need the ultra-Orthodox population that demeans them, maybe more. 
Politically, the existing system must change because the Jewish state cannot allow its long-term policies’ hijacking by the ultra-Orthodox minority. Lastly, mainstream Israelis’ revulsion with a draft dodging population’s obstruction of a patriotic population’s civil rights is a social powder keg that might one day explode. 
How, then, did we march into the ravine where we now are stuck, and how do we climb from it back to the open plain?
HAVING resolved to issue the Declaration of Independence, David Ben-Gurion set out to bring any walk of Jewish society into its list of signatories, from Revisionist nationalists to Stalinist communists through black-hatted rabbis, an aim he indeed realized, albeit at a great effort. 
To harness the rabbis, both Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, Ben-Gurion sent a letter to Agudat Israel (the forerunner of United Torah Judaism) in which he promised a series of compromises that would ensure the prospective state’s Jewish character. The rabbis approved the plan which became known as the “status quo” and governs religion’s place in Israel to this day. 
One of the deal’s clauses was that marriages and divorces will be run by clergy – whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian or any other recognized religion. Ben-Gurion agreed, for good reason. 
Civil-divorced women would remarry, but Jewish law would mark their children as bastards. Observant Israelis would then not marry the bastards and their offspring, as Jewish law demands, and within several generations Israel’s Jews would be split into two nations that don’t intermarry. 
It was a serious concern then and remains such today. 
Fortunately, there are responsible and inventive rabbis in our midst, ones who rather than create national problems try to solve them. One such rabbi is Yaakov Medan, head of Yeshivat Har Etzion, who conceived, together with the late Ruth Gavison, the Hebrew University law professor, a formula that settles the problem from both its ends, the civic and the halachic. 
The pair’s idea was that observant Israelis would compromise on marriage, while secular Israelis would compromise on divorce. They thus agreed that any unmarried man and woman would be allowed to marry with any ceremony, whether Orthodox, non-Orthodox or civil. Divorces, however, will be conducted according to Orthodoxy’s strictures, and that would be the only way for an Israeli Jew to divorce.
It’s a sensible formula that Middle Israelis will happily endorse, and which the Bennett-Lapid government, shorn of ultra-Orthodox ministers, can and must now pass. 
Polls indicate that 60% of Israeli Jews support civil marriages of any sort. The Gavison-Medan formula would be backed by an even larger majority. It would also win respect for this narrow government by many who currently oppose it. With good work, it may also be supported by several Likud lawmakers, whose honesty would override their cynicism. 
It certainly would make 300,000 full-time Israelis happy, not to mention Artem Dolgopyat, and the millions of Middle Israelis who were inspired this week by his achievement, and appalled by his plight. 
The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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