The Interior Ministry recently granted citizenship to a non-Jewish gay man married to a Jew, for the first time applying the Law of Return to a spouse in same-sex marriage. It remains to be seen, however, whether the move represents a policy change in the ministry, which could help many more same-sex couples immigrate, or merely a one-time ruling.
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The case of Bayardo Alvarez, who is not Jewish, and Joshua Goldberg, both U.S. citizens who married in Canada four years ago, made headlines earlier this year, after the couple threatened to sue the ministry for refusing Alvarez citizenship. According to the Law of Return, every Jew and his or her spouse have the right to immigrate to Israel as citizens, but until the ruling, this had only applied to heterosexual couples.
On August 10, nearly eight months after he applied for citizenship, Alvarez received confirmation that his request was granted.
"This is a very big victory for equal rights between gay couples and non-gay couples, in the sense that it has been made very clear that the Interior Ministry has to treat all couples equally, especially with regards to the Law of Return," said Nicole Center-Maor, a lawyer who directs the Reform Movement in Israel's legal aid center for new immigrants and took on Alvarez's case.
Center-Maor believes the ministry decision will prove a landmark, paving the way for future half-Jewish same-sex couples seeking Israeli citizenship.
However the Interior Ministry says the decision should not be considered a blanket ruling for all same-sex couples. "The couple's request was examined by the most senior professionals, and although it is the first request of its kind, we did not see any reason not to approve it," said Sabine Hadad, a spokeswoman for the ministry's Population and Immigration Authority. "Future requests will be examined based on the merits of the case in question, as is done with every status request."
With same-sex marriage being recently being legalized in New York State, the ministry may soon see many more cases like Alvarez's, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, whose Itim organization helps immigrants.
"There is a significant Jewish homosexual population in New York, many of them very strongly identify with the State of Israel. This was a kind of isolated phenomenon until now, but when the second largest Jewish community in the world has legal single-sex marriages, this will be a much greater challenge."
Alvarez, 33, and Goldberg, 40, applied to immigrate to Israel in January. "By February we were aware that there were issues. The Interior Ministry wasn't making a decision of any kind. They weren't saying yes, they weren't saying no," Goldberg told Anglo File. In June, the couple moved from Baltimore to Israel. Being Jewish, Goldberg immediately received citizenship. But Alvarez was given only temporary resident status.
Based on an earlier ruling, the ministry has to register as married same-sex couples that wed abroad. However, the ministry hesitated to grant Alvarez immigrant status, as this would be a de-facto recognition of substantive rights for a non-Jewish spouse in a same-sex marriage, Center-Maor said.
The couple was aided by the Law of Return's wording - which speaks of a "spouse" and not, as other laws do, of "husband" and "wife," and threatened to petition the High Court of Justice if a decision did not come by August.
"After we challenged them and argued that there was no reason to discriminate between a single-sex spouse and a heterosexual spouse, [senior ministry officials] discussed this with the State Attorney's Office and decided to back down," Center-Maor said.
The couple's landing was not soft. Alvarez did not qualify for any Jewish Agency absorption program besides one having him perform menial work at an Eilat hotel. Thus the two men worked long shifts for minimum wage, being fed hotel food that was sometimes four to six days old, Goldberg said.
The couple has since moved to Tel Aviv and "essentially self-absorbed," Goldberg said, adding that today both he and Alvarez have jobs and are doing fine.