The Olympic gold medal won for floor exercise by gymnast Artem Dolgopyat was truly a shining moment in the history of Israeli athletics. Israel had won only one gold medal prior to this, an important moment as well, won by Gal Fridman in 2004 for sailing.
Now Israel had reached the top in one of the most glamorous of Olympic sports, gymnastics. Dolgopyat received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Israel, and got congratulatory calls from the prime minister and president of Israel. Appropriately, the country is truly proud of his accomplishment.
Unfortunately, there’s a fly in the ointment of celebration, that being the reality that Dolgopyat, who has a non-Jewish mother, is not considered Jewish according to Israeli law and would not be able to marry his longtime girlfriend Masha Sakovitch in Israel. The Israeli rabbinate, which controls the marriage process for Jews in Israel, mandates that only individuals whose mothers are Jewish can marry each other in the country; instead, they must travel abroad. Israeli law also does not recognize civil marriages.
Dolgopyat’s mother raised this issue when being interviewed about his gold medal, expressing frustration about Israel allowing him to represent the country while preventing him from marrying. Headlines soon appeared hailing the athlete, but noting the irony that this new Israeli hero could not marry in his home country.
Rather than allowing this reality to take away from the joy associated with this story, it should be seen as an opportunity to generate conversation and eventually action on a subject which is now getting renewed attention but has been around for the longest time.
Let’s be clear: the Dolgopyat case highlights the urgent need for civil marriage
in Israel. And maybe this unfairness to a new Israeli celebrity can generate change that the unfairness to many anonymous Israelis could not.
Because only religious marriage is allowed in Israel for its Jewish and non-Jewish population, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews are not permitted to marry because they don’t meet standards for being Jewish and because there is no alternative, like civil marriage, to that established by the Rabbinate. This includes many converts to Judaism, secular Jews, and those who wish to have a non-Rabbinate recognized rabbi — including a Reform or Conservative rabbi — perform the marriage ceremony.
In the 1950s, when Israeli Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohen sought to marry a divorced woman, he was barred from doing so because, according to religious law, a kohen, one who belongs to priestly sect which Cohen was descended from, cannot marry a divorcée. Cohen ended up marrying his wife in London.
While the Israeli press had a field day with this story — “Supreme Court Justice can’t marry in his own country,” it was dismissed as an unusual situation that rarely happened.
Yet today, the Rabbinate’s ironclad control over marriages in Israel is no laughing matter. And now, Artem Dolgopyat has sadly become a famous example of this unfairness.
The consequences of this phenomenon are profound, mostly for those who are directly affected, but not only for them.
It plays into cynicism about state institutions and the law itself, something that it is plaguing democracies all over the world.
It raises questions about Israel’s commitment to equality for all its citizens, adding to the many unfair accusations in this regard hurled at the Jewish state.
It undermines respect for religion itself.
And it further undermines the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews, many of whom would likely encounter difficulty marrying in Israel. Significant numbers of American Jews support Israel not only because it is a Jewish state but because they believe it shares the American Jewish community’s values of openness and tolerance.
Let us hope therefore that this glorious moment of an Olympic gold medal for Israel will also generate a renewed conversation about the need to bring fairness not only to one Israeli icon but to thousands of other Israeli citizens who have contributed so much to the well-being of the nation.
Civil marriage’s time has come for the citizens of Israel.