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The Committee for the Formulation of a Proposal for Registration of Spousal Status devoted most of its first meeting, held two weeks ago, to a collective promise made by its members to uphold the confidentiality of the proceedings. To tell the truth, the committee is so confidential that it took a full nine months to set it up, and there is still no clear consensus among its members on the extent of its mandate.

The establishment of the committee, better known as the Civil Marriage Committee, is a product of Shinui's coalition agreement, which says the committee is supposed to submit its recommendations within a nine-month period.

But nine months have elapsed since the government's formation, and the committee, chaired by MK Ronnie Bar-On (Likud), has only now been formed. Its members include MKs Ronny Brison (Shinui), Nissan Slomiansky (National Religious Party) and Yuri Shtern (National Union).

Now begins the argument over the date by which the committee will submit its recommendations. Shinui sources say that the recommendations must be formulated within nine months of the committee's formation. Said declaration was made at the start of the Knesset's summer recess, in June. The National Religious Party argues that the nine months should be counted from November 2003, when the committee actually began to meet. There seems to be no rush. Even Shtern, who represents the immigrants, says that the state managed to exist for 55 years in its current condition, so it is no catastrophe if the amendment to the existing law is delayed just a bit longer.

This pace of events does not really suit the needs of the Russian-speaking community, the group most affected by the lack of a civil marriage option. Approximately 300,000 people -

about one-quarter of the community - are not Jews according to religious law and cannot marry in Israel. They are joined by an ever-growing number of Israel couples who could be married through the rabbinate, but that choose not to do so. The Central Bureau of Statistics reports that 5,600 Israelis got married abroad in the year 2000. More than half of them opted for civil marriage rites in Cyprus. The number of Israelis married in Cyprus has increased tenfold in the past decade.

Virtual rabbinate

"For veteran Israeli couples, the search for an alternative is a type of luxury. For tens of thousands of immigrants, it is an existential need," says Milana Ibez, coordinator of the immigrant staff at the Forum for Free Choice in Marriage. The visual expression of this need can easily be found in the Russian-language "Virtual Rabbinate" Web site, the brainchild of Dima Kagan, a 27-year-old imaging student who immigrated to Israel 13 years ago from Birobidjan. Incidentally, Kagan is by all religious opinions a kosher Jew.

"My e-mail is flooded with messages that I have no chance to take care of, and a long waiting line has formed," he relates. The "care" to which he is referring includes filling out a "marriage form," uploading the couple's pictures, and a detailed description of the difficulties the couple has come up against on the way to what is supposed to be the happiest day of their lives.

Applicants fall into two categories - those who only have the virtual alternative, and those whose request is an expression of protest in principle.

"They are angry," says Kagan. "I myself am not against marriage through the rabbinate, but in a situation of lack of choice, it makes people angry. If the State does not want non-Jews to come, it should say so at the entrance. As soon as they are here, it should allow them to feel like human beings, who will not have to drag in some grandmother who speaks Yiddish to prove their Jewishness. That's the trick that works best on the rabbis."

That is more or less what happened to Regina and her partner, Anatoli. Regina, 25, lives in Petah Tikva. She immigrated to Israel seven years ago. Here she met a young man from Russia who is not Jewish, and got pregnant. The liaison produced a son, who is now six. Regina eventually ended the relationship with her son's father. Not long ago, she met Anatoli, who moved to Israel five years ago. The two fell deeply in love. When Regina got pregnant, they decided to marry. This time, for a change, Regina did not predict any problems. Anatoli is registered as a Jew on his identity card, his mother is registered as a Jew. Everything seemed to be in order.

The rabbinate didn't think so. When they came to fill out the necessary forms, the rabbinate's researchers discovered the name of Anatoli's great-grandmother's name, which sounded to them decidedly un-Jewish. The great-grandmother, incidentally, was born in 1905 and died many years ago. Therefore, it may be a little difficult to have her appear before the rabbinate or even to present any certificates from Russia, which since the grandmother's birth has seen two world wars and one revolution. "They told us that we had no chance," Regina angrily relates. "They turn our life into hell and force women to remain single parents. I don't understand this country."

Nor can they marry in Cyprus. They don't have the money and don't have the time. Regina is a housekeeper, and Anatoli is a plumber and fixit-man without regular work. "Where are we going to get $1,500?" asks Regina. "Besides which, with the current state of unemployment, we cannot miss even a single day of work. We are the first ones who risk being fired."

Milana Ibez in recent weeks ran an ad in the Russian-language local papers for the Forum for Free Choice in Marriage, with a phone number. Since then, she has been inundated with phone calls, which she has been documenting for the sake of a public campaign the Forum is about to initiate about the issue. They - unlike the committee that is supposed to propose solutions - have no time. The anger is building up, and with it the disappointment with the immigrant parties and Shinui, which assured them a response to their call of distress.

"We pinned our hopes on this committee, and it still hasn't done a thing," says Ibez. "We wrote the prime minister and haven't yet received an answer. This is, after all, what Shinui promised the immigrants who voted for it. Ariel Sharon also said that solution is needed for the masses of citizens who cannot marry in Israel. We waited nine months, and now it is obvious that it's all a big bluff. Actually, the situation has only gotten worse. Shinui created such a successful illusion that there are people who are certain that there is civil marriage already, because Shinui is part of the coalition. I hear it all the time. "

Time bomb

This entire time bomb is now rolling its way to the door of the new committee. Except that the voices already emanating from the committee chambers bear no good tidings to the masses whose fate depends on its decisions. "The first blow-up can be expected in the upcoming meeting," says MK Brison. "The gaps are indeed very wide. In the matter of marriage between two non-Jews, I assume it will be possible to reach agreement. But because we're dealing with what the NRP defines as `intermarriages' and we describe as `inter-religion marriage,' I don't see how it will be possible to bridge the gaps. We knew it from the outset, but we assumed that things would be a little easier. I've already had some informal conversations with NRP people, who made it clear that as far as they're concerned, this is a line that they will absolutely not cross." The same is the case for Shinui, whose electoral future largely depends on the continued support of the immigrants.

"If we do not reach agreement, we will have to take unilateral steps," says Brison, who does not say what that may entail. But Shinui is even considering the idea of underwriting the cost of the trip to Cyprus from the Interior Ministry budget. Sources in the party agree that this would be "a ridiculous solution," but the fact that Shinui holds two critical portfolios - Interior and Justice - opens the door to creative types of threats.

Shinui, it seems, would be willing to compromise on the non-implementation of civil marriage for all, but would insist on its demand to furnish an alternate marital framework for couples in which one of the partners is not Jewish. This compromise is not likely to be acceptable to the NRP.

"The committee is difficult," sighs MK Slomiansky. "I don't exactly know what I'm doing there, but I'll give it a chance." Essentially, Slomiansky explains, he at first understood that the committee was originally intended to solve the problems of individuals considered by Jewish law forbidden to marry, such as a kohen [member of the priestly caste] wishing to marry a divorcee. "Only afterward did I realize from the other side, from Shinui, that they are not interested in individuals forbidden to marry, but of mixed marriages. Here we have a big problem. It is inconceivable that we would be party to assimilation."

Slomiansky believes that the best solution is conversion of non-Jewish immigrants. "The simplest thing is for them to convert, even if the left is stirring up the immigrants not to convert," he says. "But I could not agree to the destruction of the Jewish people. That's far enough. There is a red line."

The unresolved question is the Likud's real stand. Sharon is ostensibly committed to find a solution; otherwise he he will have a hard time gaining the immigrants' permanent support for Likud.

"There is a coalition agreement, and there is a coalition that has to be preserved," says his representative on the committee, MK Bar-On. "I'm not entirely pessimistic, but I'm not willing to work under the whip of time, either." Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of pessimistic immigrants do not have time."