Israel and the world have recently received a reminder of the chasm between Israel’s image as a brightly shining Western democracy, which excels in numerous fields, and the darker reality faced by numerous Israelis, including those in whose achievements the State takes pride, when they fall victim to the unholy pact between religion and state in Israel. While Israel’s president, prime minister, and many other dignitaries called Artem Dolgopyat to congratulate him on bringing honor to the State of Israel by winning the Olympic gold medal on its behalf, in a live radio interview the young man’s mother shared their family’s frustration over the fact that her son, an Israeli citizen, cannot legally get married in his grateful country, for only his father is Jewish, while his mother is not.
This irreconcilable gap raised awareness, at least for a short while, of the painful consequences of Israel’s choice to follow the model of the world’s Muslim fundamentalist religious regimes by outlawing civil marriages and granting the monopoly over marriage to its religious establishments. In the case of Jewish people, this monopoly is in the hands of the extremist Orthodox rabbinate. Of course, Artem is hardly the only Israeli to be denied such a basic liberty as the freedom to marry in his country. Here is my story:
My name is Maria, and I am an Israeli citizen. I married my husband last February, only to be faced with astonishing resistance to our enjoyment of our basic rights from the very heights of government. We have decided to publicize our story to make people aware of the abuses carried out by the Interior Ministry, which is still strongly influenced by the former Cabinet minister, Rabbi Aryeh Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. The ministry, at his instructions, continues to harass Israeli citizens whose marriages do not conform to the fundamentalist religious principles of the Chief Rabbinate.
The secular parties in the current coalition government continue to bow to the religious parties, now in the opposition, against the will of the majority of the Israeli public; against the values encoded in the Declaration of Independence, which promises freedom of religion; and in disregard of basic civil rights and human dignity. As a result, instead of building our home in Israel, contributing to its scientific advancement, and raising our family here, we have been forced to leave the country and start our journey as a married couple overseas. This is a direct result of the religious fanaticism and xenophobia that has characterized the policies and guiding principles of the Interior Ministry for many years, due to the malign influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties.
I immigrated to Israel with my mother from the former Soviet Union in 1991. I am a citizen of the State of Israel and registered with the Ministry of the Interior as a Jew. In practice, I lead a secular life. I am a biologist and chemist. My husband Thomas is a British citizen who is not affiliated with any religion. After completing his doctorate at Cambridge University, he came to Israel four years ago to join the Weizmann Institute as a postdoctoral researcher in the field of biomaterials. Our common scientific interests led to our meeting; we fell in love, married, and decided to build our common home in Israel. However, Israel does not allow its citizens the right to marry, recognized in every other democracy in the world. It only recognizes religious marriages for those seeking to marry within its borders (for Jews, marriages through and in accordance with the rules of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate). Therefore, we had to marry civilly abroad, but due to COVID-related travel restrictions, with Thomas being unable to leave the country, we and more than 500 other Israeli and Israeli/foreign couples decided to marry through the US state Utah. According to the rules of Utah County, couples can legally marry via secure teleconference after proving their identities and eligibility.
When we applied to the Interior Ministry in February to register as a married couple, the clerk informed us that it was not possible to even begin the process, due to Minister Deri’s order to suspend registrations of marriages performed via video conferencing in Utah. All such marriages comply with United States law and are accepted by the US State Department. They have also been reviewed and approved by the Israeli Population Authority, and the first couples married through this route were registered as married. Today, more than 500 Israeli couples who recently married via Utah’s video conferencing service have been refused registration. Twenty couples, apparently at random, were successful in registering as married.
Since Thomas’ visa, which allowed him to stay and receive pay in Israel for his research, expired in April, and as the Interior Ministry refused to extend the visa or recognize his status as the spouse of an Israeli citizen, we found ourselves forced to leave the country. The Interior Ministry refused to grant a visa that would have permitted Thomas to work, insisting, as his marriage was invalid by decree of former minister Deri, that he was only eligible for a tourist visa. Due to the nature of the visa, he was also prevented from joining any other Israeli university or corporation.
Starting a family in Israel became a practical impossibility. This caused us severe stress, dropping the floor out from beneath Thomas’s academic career here and undermining our ability to make a living, particularly because we support my mother on our salaries. Therefore, we have been forced to leave Israel. The ensuing extreme stress forced me to seek medical attention and put our hopes of starting a family in peril. We have left the country, despite the uncertainty of finding work in my field overseas, leaving my mother behind until we can bring her with us. This has put me and my mother under incredible strain; it forced me to choose between my mother and my husband. Needless to say, our new country is one in which we do not have the social and familial connections we enjoyed in Israel.
Due to the unaccountable, unreasonable decision to refuse to register our marriage, Hiddush – for Religious Freedom and Equality filed a petition in the Administrative Court of Jerusalem on our behalf along and seven other Israeli couples (among the hundreds who married through Utah), demanding that our marriages be registered.
Regrettably, even though former minister Deri was replaced as Minister of the Interior by Minister Ayelet Shaked [Yamina], she maintains his position that Jews in Israel should only be married by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. She has proven unwilling to reverse his decree, forcing us all to seek remedy from the Court. As we did not expect to receive an answer before Thomas’s visa expired, Hiddush applied to the Interior Ministry to grant Thomas a resident visa and allow him, at that stage, to receive residency in Israel as my “cohabitant.” The Ministry of the Interior refused this simple request until thoroughly convinced that we were not making up the claim of cohabitation; and it merely extended his tourist visa until Thomas’s date of departure from Israel.
In so doing, the religiously coercive Chief Rabbinate and Israeli Ministry of the Interior ensured that we leave instead of being able to build our home here in Israel and contribute to the thriving high-tech and scientific start-up scene in this vibrant, creative, and otherwise forward-looking country.