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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Bennett can liberate Israel from haredi chains on religion – opinion

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On Sunday morning, I was in my office in Jerusalem with an eye on the TV across the newsroom as a gymnast I had vaguely heard of took to the mat in Tokyo. Artem Dolgopyat, soon to be Israel’s second ever Olympic gold medalist, was beginning his routine.

It was incredible to watch. The flips, the 360-degree spins in midair and the flying across the mat – yes, that is what he did – was amazing. As I watched, I turned to the person next to me and asked: “Is he Jewish?”

Jewish men, I said jokingly, aren’t supposed to be able to jump like that. It was, I added, kind of like the 1992 hit movie White Men Can’t Jump, with Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes.

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Dolgopyat’s father is Jewish, and that is how the family from Ukraine immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return in 2009, when the future medalist was 12 years old. His mother, though, is not, meaning that Israeli authorities do not consider him Jewish.

Although not Jewish, Dolgopyat’s mother spoke like a classic Jewish mom when interviewed on the radio after her son’s victory.

“The state won’t let him get married,” she said. “He has a girlfriend, and they have lived together for three years, but he cannot get married. He needs to leave [the country to get married] but cannot leave because of sports.”

What Dolgopyat’s mother meant by “needs to leave” is that for someone who is not halachically Jewish, the only recourse for getting married is to do so outside the borders of the State of Israel. This means traveling overseas to get married – before corona, many Israelis flew to Cyprus – or to not get married and just be recognized as legal partners by the Justice Ministry.

The fact is, in 2021, and after 73 years of statehood, Israel still does not provide full rights to all of its citizens. Most people read that and think about the Palestinians. In this case though, the reference is to the more than 300,000 Israeli citizens who live here but cannot get married because the Chief Rabbinate and Orthodox Halacha do not recognize them as Jewish.

This is a ridiculous situation that needs to be resolved; and while it was good to see Knesset members, ministers and journalists speak about civil marriage this week in light of Dolgopyat’s predicament, where were they for the last 30 years, ever since one million people began immigrating to Israel from the former Soviet Union?

Out of this group who came mostly in the late 1980s and early ’90s, there were some 200,000 who were not considered halachically Jewish. Their children born here and abroad cannot get married in Israel, a stain on the country’s democratic character.

Marriage is supposed to be a basic right. Citizens abide by the state’s laws, pay taxes, serve in the IDF and perform other social obligations. One of the basic rights a state is meant to provide is the ability to wed. Unfortunately, when it comes to Israel, something so basic cannot be taken for granted.

And while it was praiseworthy to see so many speak out about the problem, they needn’t have waited for Dolgopyat to win a medal. He should be allowed to get married because he is an Israeli citizen. It is that simple.

What is not simple is passing a law that would allow civil marriage. As of today, the only way for someone to get married in Israel is to go through a religious institution. If you are Jewish, you have to be married through the Rabbinate; if you are Christian, you wed through the Church; and if you are Muslim, it is through the Islamic court system.

This situation applies not only to a Jew marrying a non-Jew, but also to two non-halachic (Orthodox) Jews who want to get married in Israel. People like Dolgopyat and his fiancé (who is a non-Jew from Belarus) cannot get married since they are both not Jewish, Christian or Muslim. What if they still wanted to find a way to get married in Israel? They would have to convert. That is the only option.

This is unjust and immoral. What makes this situation worse is that it can easily change. All that’s needed is for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to decide to pass a law that would allow civil marriage or some other form of civil union for non-religious Israelis so they can marry.

If Bennett gave his consent, it would happen. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party already supports civil marriage, as does almost every other party in the coalition with the exception of some members of New Hope, which would likely split in the event of a vote.

The only reason for Bennett not to agree to such an initiative is due to some hope that he needs to keep the door open to the haredi parties to join his coalition at a later date. When he took office, the thinking among his team was that after a budget passes in November, the haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – will understand that the government is here to stay, and that it will be better for them to join and reap the economic benefits than remain in the opposition.

But based on the haredi attacks against Bennett in recent weeks, that idea does not seem relevant any longer.

Bennett has been called a “murderer,” “evil,” “wicked,” and someone who needs to take off his kippah. The peak criticism came on Monday, when Bennett took to the Knesset podium and was met with screaming and heckling, like the kind that took place during his inaugural speech two months ago. Shas leader Arye Deri yelled in a way that veteran Knesset watchers said they had never seen. UTJ’s Moshe Gafni had to be evicted from the plenum.

If there was ever a hope that those two parties would one day enter the Bennet-Lapid government, today that looks more like a pipe dream.

While this is not what Bennett wanted when he assumed office, this does present him with a historic and unique opportunity. He now has the chance to lead a series of reforms that will once and for all break the haredi stranglehold and monopoly over all matters of religion and state in this country. 

While he has so far rolled out a nice kashrut reform and announced plans to allow more rabbis to convert, that is barely the tip when it comes to breaking up Orthodoxy’s hold on religion.

Why hasn’t Bennett passed a resolution in the cabinet to reapprove the Kotel compromise from 2016 that will see the renovation, upgrade and establishment of a respectable egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall? That can easily be done on Sunday at the upcoming cabinet meeting, if he wants to. There is no need for legislation, legal consultations or political maneuvering. All he has to do is dust off the decision from 2016 and bring it to a vote.

With two years left to his term in office – assuming this government lasts that long – Bennett will not have much of a chance to leave a mark. The threats Israel faces today – from Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah – are likely to still be there in two years, even if Bennett takes a more aggressive approach than his predecessor over the next 24 months. In two years Biden will still be president, and Lapid will then take the reins and set the tone for the Israel-US relationship.

COVID is not going anywhere, and for every success he racks up there are countless pitfalls along the way. The place where he can really change Israel is on matters of religion and state.

As an observant Jew – the first to serve as prime minister – Bennett is uniquely positioned to enact these changes. He can serve as the bridge that Israel has long needed between Judaism and Israelism; between the observant and secular; and between National-Religious and haredim. 

This is an historic opportunity. Let’s not miss it. Let’s liberate Israel and make it a true democracy.


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