Artem Dolgopyat’s gold medal victory at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday was unprecedented. However, everything that transpired afterwards was actually very much expected, following ready-established protocol: There was joy over the win, excitement among immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union over the glory that they had won for the country, and recognition of the huge contribution that they have made to Israeli society; there was the euphoria that was quickly met with the troubling recognition of the tough road that Artem has travelled and his status as a second class citizen whose Jewish identity is at best called into question; and, of course, there was the humane decision to go beyond the letter of the law and accept him into the ranks of the Jewish people, with all the attendant privileges. He’s an Olympic champion, after all.
An interview on 103 FM radio with Dolgopyat’s mother, Angela, provided a good example of the mistaken assumptions Israelis make regarding immigration from Russia and other former Soviet republics. “[His] grandmother is Jewish and from our standpoint, he’s completely Jewish,” Ben Caspit, who was interviewing Dolgopyat’s mother, quickly remarked after she explained that her son can’t marry the woman who is his partner in Israel. But without noticing, Caspit was twice mistaken.
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The first mistake was in not recognizing that the problem is not only Dolgopyat’s religious status but that of his non-Jewish partner. The second mistake was in deciding that Artem Dolgopyat was entitled to equal rights by virtue of his being Jewish – and not, for example, by virtue of being an Israeli citizen.
The strong response prompted by Dolgopyat's mother’s comments, even if well intended, misses the point. Even if the rabbinate considered Artem Jewish, neither he nor any other Jewish Israeli would be able to marry a non-Jewish partner, whether they are tenth generation in the country or new immigrants whose partners were considered ineligible to marry or who preferred to marry outside the rabbinate. The problem is not that of immigrants from the former Soviet Union but rather of any Israeli, whoever they may be, who doesn’t live their life in accordance with Jewish religious law, halakha, as interpreted by the Chief Rabbinate.
A lot has already been said about the hypocrisy in the inclination to fully accept Soviet Jewish immigrants into Jewry only when they bring us honor or endanger their lives in battle. It’s as if Jewry is an award reserved only for those who prove themselves through their patriotism or their excellence. The problem begins long before that, with the official discrimination that the state practices against its citizens. This doesn’t involve a halakhic debate over declarations of religiosity, connections to the Jewish people or the age-old question of who is a Jew. The only question that needs to be asked is what someone’s rights are from the moment that the State of Israel has decided to grant them citizenship.
More than any wave of immigrants, those originating from the former Soviet Union (FSU) continue to suffer from prejudice when it comes to their degree of Jewishness and their connection to the state. As the son of parents who immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union shortly before I was born, I have personally experienced this. The insufferable disparity between the Law of Return, which confers Israeli citizenship, and the Chief Rabbinate’s laws, which mostly harm FSU immigrants, is just part of the issue. This is a bigger story that affects us all.
There are those who would propose resolving cases such as Dolgopyat’s by making it easier to convert to Judaism than it is under the rabbinate. This doesn’t involve the important disagreement, important in and of itself, between Orthodox and secular Jews or the need for state recognition of various streams in Judaism. Opening the marketplace to various kinds of conversion and to liberal interpretations of halakha, as is proposed in these contexts, is not a substitute for the state’s obvious duty to provide its citizens the rights to which they are entitled, without regard to their religion or level of religiosity. In general, every government needs to be expected to advance this change. That’s certainly the case when it comes to the current government, which has been dubbed a “government of change.” A government of change doesn’t only mean “just not Bibi” but a democracy and equal rights for all citizens.
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The solution is a civil agenda in Israel that permits every citizen to marry, to divorce and to lead their lives in accordance with their own consciences, without regard to religion. And that goes for new immigrants, native-born Israelis, Olympic champions and just regular folks who haven’t won medals.
Mickey Gitzin is the director of the New Israel Fund.