Yedidia Z. Stern
Yedidia Z. Stern

Artem – brother or other? 

Israel must find a way to allow marriage for all and the best option is to set up a civil union track that doesn't undercut the Rabbinate's halachic authority
Artem Dolgopyat of Israel celebrates after winning the gold medal on the floor exercise in the artistic gymnastics men's final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on August 1, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/ Natacha Pisarenko)
Artem Dolgopyat of Israel celebrates after winning the gold medal on the floor exercise in the artistic gymnastics men's final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on August 1, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/ Natacha Pisarenko)

The Olympics is a phenomenon with an internal contradiction. On the one hand, it is a global event for all mankind. The Olympic spirit, symbolized by the five interlocking rings, draws together all races, faiths, and cultures, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a common effort. In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, we split into separate linguistic groups; during the Olympics, we once again speak in one common language, the language of sports.

On the other hand, the Olympics is also a local event, as it focuses on competition between countries. The athletes represent political frameworks, and their achievements are immediately nationalized: the elated winners rush to wrap themselves in their national flags; their anthems play during the medal ceremonies, and citizens take special pride in the achievements of the “tribe.” It is a celebration of nationalism.

The great value of the Olympics, however, lies precisely in the middle way it offers: it does not negate nationalism, but rather channels it along a positive path. This is illustrated by the ease with which nations adopt immigrants, gifted athletes, into their fold. An American draped in the Swedish flag (gold in pole vault) or an Ethiopian kissing the Dutch flag (gold in long-distance running) blurs the lines between local and global. The same is true of Israel, which boasts a roster of immigrant athletes.

But in Israel, immigration is a particularly complicated matter. Thus, Artem Dolgopyat, an Israeli hero who took the gold in men`s gymnastics, does not enjoy full civil rights. He immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return and became an Israeli citizen, but as he is not a Jew according to the Orthodox definition (his mother is not Jewish), he is denied the opportunity to marry (a Jewish woman) in Israel.

Who is Artem? Israel is home to more than a third of a million citizens, who like Dolgopyat, immigrated here as members of Jewish families, though are not themselves recognized as Jews. A large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union belong to this group – Israeli but not Jewish. By the way, to our shame, since they are not recognized as “Jews,” Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics designates them as “others.” 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to justify the violation of the basic civil right of these “others” to establish families that will be recognized by the state. The obvious solution would therefore be to abolish the religious monopoly on personal status law, and for the State of Israel to recognize the validity of civil marriage and divorce, as is customary in the world’s liberal nations. However, for Israel’s large religiously observant public, as well as for a portion of its traditionalist sector, recognizing civil marriage and divorce without attention to the religious identity of the couple raises both symbolic and practical difficulty. Symbolically, it undermines the unifying basis of the State of Israel’s Jewish identity. The Jewish family, for this public, is crucial for the intergenerational transmission of the heritage that defines us. In practice, civil marriage is considered valid in religious terms, but civil divorce is not. Thus, children born to later unions of civil divorcees, are considered mamzerim (literally, “bastards”). This could potentially result in keeping “pedigree lists” to prevent marriages involving mamzerim, while creating a historical rift that would split the people into mutually-alienated subgroups.

A solution is needed that would allow Artem the possibility of establishing a family recognized by the state, without harming Israel’s religious and traditionalist public. The Israel Democracy Institute’s Constitution by Consensus features a proposal, formulated by Professor Shahar Lifshitz, in this spirit. The proposal calls for the State of Israel to recognize two parallel paths for the creation of family units: religious marriage, and secular civil union. The civil union, to be officiated by a civil registrar, would allow all couples who so desire (even if they are both Jews) to form family units recognized under the law as valid for all intents and purposes. The procedure would be conducted in a way that does not create halachically valid marriages, thereby removing the fear of future children’s mamzer status, and eliminating the practical difficulty. These unions would not be called “marriages,” thus allowing the religious monopoly on the institution of marriage to be maintained.

This would be a painful compromise for everyone: the religious would relinquish control of the official channels and rules by which the state recognizes families. Nevertheless, “marriage and divorce” as symbolic matters would continue to be mediated solely in accordance with religious law. Thus, Artem would become an equal citizen without tearing the fabric of our shared Israeli society. We would do well to be guided by spirit of the Olympics – a spirit of the middle way – as we strive to resolve the controversies that characterize the shared Israeli journey.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University, who was previously a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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