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Shinui's cabinet ministers justifiably drew fire when they abstained in a vote on Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz's proposed legislation to permit civil marriage. In abstaining, they stripped the mask of liberalism from the party's face, conclusively revealing a face that lashes out at the Haredim but does not offer any alternate social or civil agenda to the Orthodox monopoly.

Yet considering Shinui's protracted revelation as a conservative, right-wing party, and considering the back it has turned on the erstwhile Labor and Meretz voters captivated by its ersatz charms, the scandalous absence of Labor's representatives is much more significant. Once again, the languid Labor members of Knesset have proved how entirely disconnected they are from Israeli society. Even worse: They have apparently given up on it altogether.

Civil marriage is portrayed as a problem affecting a single group: immigrants from the former Soviet Union whom the rabbinate cannot marry because they lack proof of their Jewishness, or who are not considered Jews, at least according to the strict criteria of the Orthodox. This is a partial presentation of the facts, and is misleading and tendentious.

It is partial because, even if this is a problem affecting tens of thousands of immigrants, it affects all Israelis. After all, as opposed to the Haredim, the immigrants do not only marry among themselves. And it is misleading because Central Bureau of Statistics data show that each year, fewer native-born Israelis register for marriage through the rabbinate: Young people who can afford to do so fly to Cyprus; others marry in alternative ceremonies and sign legal agreements; many do not marry at all. Anything to avoid having to deal with the religious establishment.

Most people who have married and divorced through the rabbinate prefer the second time around not to marry at all, mainly because they are fed up with the intrusive intervention of religion into what is supposed to be a personal and civil matter, arranged between them and the state. The rabbinate-bypassing legal status of common-law marriage, including same-sex spouses, enables any person to fulfill himself or herself as part of a couple in accordance with his or her desires and beliefs. This option is primarily exploited by the middle class. Those immigrants who want a rabbinate marriage are motivated by a desire to have the marriage registered in their identity card - partly as a means of joining the mainstream of Israeli society.

The illusory description of civil marriage is therefore tendentious: Anyone who says that if it were not for the immigrants, the rabbinate could be marrying anyone and everyone, also knows that only the economically weak immigrants (most of them, that is) cannot bypass the rabbinate at the cost of a few thousand dollars, and are therefore the group in greatest need of civil marriage. This tendentiousness plays into the hands of the Orthodox establishment.

How simple it is: The rabbis are well aware that no one is concerned about the plight of the weaker members of society, and that the Labor MKs - people for whom (just like the Shinui leaders) everyone they know is able to buy whatever conjugal arrangement he wishes - are not concerned about the tens of thousands of immigrants and natives who are unable to arrange a storybook wedding in the Florence municipality. In this way, they can also keep on telling the public that they are keeping the embers of the Jewish people alight.

Nevertheless, mitzvah-observant and God-fearing jurists and intellectuals such as Professor Pinchas Schiffman, a leader in the struggle for civil marriage, insist that the presentation of this option would in fact regularize the relationship between religion and state to the benefit of both sides, and that the oft-circumvented monopoly only brings dishonor on the religion. Were there anyone in the Labor Party besides Ophir Pines-Paz who was less apathetic and alienated and fantasizing about a renewed alliance with the Haredim, he or she would understand that civil marriage is only the tip of the iceberg of the changes in Israeli society. If you forsake study for one day, it will forsake you for two, the rabbis like to say. The MKs who think they will someday form a government merely by shooting the breeze in the Knesset cafeteria may be surprised to find that it will take more than political tricks to win back society's trust.