4,000 Couples a Year Cannot Marry Due to Halakhic Rules

At 1:30 A.M. Saturday, Hava and Andre paced toward their huppa at the Zebra Club, a disco for Russian-speaking youngsters in south Tel Aviv. The bride, in a long white dress, chewed gum nervously. The couple was not really getting married. They held the fake ceremony - attended by some 700 young people - as a protest against their inability to tie the knot in Israel due to halakhic rules.

The overwhelming majority of the revellers came from mixed families or are not Jewish by halakha, as a result of the demographic changes in the immigration from the former Soviet Union in recent years. An estimated 4,000 couples a year are prohibited from marrying in Israel. Thousands of other couples prefer not to enter wedlock under rabbinical officiation and cannot accept the fact that their new homeland deprives them of the freedom to choose.

According to surveys, more than 90 percent of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union want to get married in a civil ceremony. "This is an ongoing injustice which we did not encounter in the places we came from," says Hava. "I think this situation exists only in Israel and Iran."

"Forty percent of you will not be able to marry in your country," said the host at the opening of the alternative wedding ceremony. "This is neither just nor democratic." This week he will go overseas to marry his betrothed, whom he cannot marry in Israel.

Hava and Andre, 28, were chosen to star in the protest act out of dozens of couples who responded to an invitation on the Russian language Internet site Souz. The two, who came to Israel seven years ago, will have a kosher wedding ceremony this week, but volunteered to take part in the protest demonstration in the name of the hundreds of couples who cannot marry. The attendants were asked to sign a petition that will be submitted to the Knesset members.

Andre said a friend of his, who was badly wounded during military service in Lebanon shortly after coming to Israel and was hospitalized for six months, found he could not get married and was forced to fly with his girlfriend to Cyprus. "We fulfill all our obligations, we serve in the army, pay income tax, but we don't get the most basic right - to marry in Israel," he said.

Hava said there are many other obstacles that disrupt the life of the young people who immigrate to Israel on the basis of the Law of Return. "Many couples have no money to go abroad to get married. So they don't get married and their children are considered the children of single mothers, who get all the financial benefits. The state loses a lot of money from this, if you also think of the millions spent every year on weddings abroad. Only the private companies that market `wedding packages' in Europe, make a fortune. Altogether, this is hypocrisy and make believe. The religious people don't really prevent mixed marriages, they merely incur financial losses to the state and cause suffering to masses of young people who are embittered and harbor anger toward their state," she says.

The Zebra club event was organized by the immigrants' group in the Forum for Free Choice of Marriage, an umbrella organization of 30 groups, including the Association for Civil Rights, Na'amat, Hemdat and new immigrants' organizations. The group's slogan is "we want to get married in our country." In Russian it is called "Forum for civil marriage" - the real demand of the youngsters.

On the "wedding night," the forum's representatives dispensed advice on marriage options.

Young women in wedding dresses wove their way among the dancers, covered in posters saying "we want to do it in Israel, not in Cyprus."

Olga, a 21-year-old economics student, and Yvgeny, 23, have bad memories of their marriage ceremony in the City Hall of Larnaca, Cyprus. Yvgeny, whose father is Jewish but not his mother, was then a conscripted soldier. He could not get married in Israel, but as a soldier had difficulty overcoming the prohibition on leaving the country.

The problem is huge and getting bigger with the increase in non-Jewish immigrants. Some 320,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union are registered in the Interior Ministry as non-Jews or as persons whose Jewishness is doubtful. They will have a real problem when they want to marry Jews. In future, the problem will be passed on to the second generation because the children of non-Jewish mothers will also not be allowed to marry.

"We are demanding that Shinui keep its promise to find a solution to those who are prohibited from getting married," says Milena Abaz, the head of the immigrants forum for civil marriage. "This is what they promised us in every election campaign, and even anchored in their coalition agreement setting up a joint committee with the National Religious Party and the Likud to find alternative solutions. They have so much political clout, and they don't know anything with it. This big happening is intended to bring the issue back to the daily agenda and also to pressure Shinui."

A Shinui spokesman commented: "These days the names of the candidates on the committee are being submitted. According to the coalition agreement, the committee will have nine months to present recommendations and proposals."