Graciela Muzio and Daniel Korenblit .
Graciela Muzio and Daniel Korenblit yesterday. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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The High Court of Justice has expanded the limited availability of civil marriage in Israel in a precedent-setting decision. The court this week directed the Interior Ministry to recognize the marriages of 14 couples who were married by proxy. They registered in the Central American republic of El Salvador, where the law does not require the parties to the marriage to appear before the government official who conducts the ceremony.

In practice, this means that brides and grooms in Israel can marry in El Salvador and never have to leave Israel. In one of her last rulings before retiring from the Supreme Court, Justice Ayala Procaccia granted a petition filed by the 14 couples seven years ago, after the Israeli population registrar refused to recognize their Salvadoran marriages. Most were Israelis who had married foreign workers or tourists from abroad who were hesitant to leave Israel for fear this would invalidate their visas or that they would not be allowed back into the country.

Marriage in Israel is generally within the authority of the religious community to which the bride and groom belong. The Salvadoran procedure allowing marriage by proxy is controversial. All 14 of the nuptials were arranged by Israeli lawyer Graciela Muzio, who specializes in civil marriages performed abroad. The court case also considered a similar petition filed by attorney Meir Saragovi, who also deals with foreign civil marriages.

Parties wishing to marry by proxy in El Salvador are required to provide considerable documentation and must hire four representatives, two of whom stand in for the couple getting married and the other two to serve as witnesses. The process takes two to three months before a marriage certificate is sent by mail to Israel, Muzio said.

In her ruling, Procaccia wrote: "Marriage through power of attorney, particularly for a couple who are absent from the ceremony, could engender concern about deception or a lack of fairness," but, she noted, "in various locations around the world marriages performed through powers of attorney are recognized as legal. In the past, in Israel as well, such marriages have not been disqualified as contrary to public policy as long as they are recognized as legal in the location where they are performed."

The justice rejected the state's contention that the petitioners' marriages were not recognized due to defects in the marriage documents relating to their authenticity. She said there was no evidence presented showing that the documents produced for the registration clerk were false or untruthful. She acknowledged, however, that such marriages are "complex," but said the court could not debate what was simply the administrative act of making a record of a marriage. As long as no evidence is presented of defects arousing suspicion of forged marriage documents, the Israeli registrar must record the marriage.

The founder of Hiddush, which battles for religious pluralism, Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, called the ruling historic. "It is perhaps ridiculous that Israeli citizens have to get married by correspondence in El Salvador, but the reality depriving hundreds of thousands of Israelis of the right to marry is ridiculous."

One of the lawyers in the case, Daniel Korenblit, said the ruling had its technical and administrative aspects but was also a substantive ruling, opening the door to large numbers of people who in the past had to expend great efforts to marry an easier alternative. "It is absolutely a step forward along the path to civil marriage in Israel," he said.

One of the petitioners, Pinhas Koseyev, married by proxy in El Salvador a non-Jewish Russian woman. He had not heard about the court's ruling until he was contacted by Haaretz. In the years since the petition was filed, his wife has been diagnosed with cancer, Koseyev said. "After 10 years of fighting, I was already desperate and very angry," he added.