Editorial |

Israel Treats Its Olympic Victor as a Second-class Medalist

Artem Dolgopyat with his girlfriend today at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Artem Dolgopyat with his girlfriend today at Ben-Gurion Airport.Credit: Amir Cohen / Reuters

When Artem Dolgopyat stepped up to the podium Sunday in Tokyo and received his gold medal, the Israeli anthem was played and the Israeli flag was raised. The country’s leaders hastened to appropriate the Israeli gymnast’s achievement. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett interrupted the cabinet meeting to congratulate him. “You’ve made history and brought us great pride,” Bennett told him on the phone. President Isaac Herzog also congratulated him, saying, “You made history today. The State of Israel is proud of you.”

But neither pride nor the history he made is of any interest to the state when he seeks to exercise a basic civil right and marry the woman of his choice.

LISTEN: How Israel’s Olympic hero challenged a nation’s identity

“The state won’t let him get married,” his mother, Angela Bilan, said in a radio interview. “He has a girlfriend and they have been living together for three years, but they can’t get married. They don’t let him.” The Israeli Olympic medalist, his mother explains, would have to get married abroad in a civil ceremony, because he is not Jewish under Jewish law.

Israel has no problem accepting the honor the non-Jewish Israeli brings to it, but to give him the minimal amount of civil respect is simply too difficult. “The pride of Israel on the podium – and second-class under the canopy,” tweeted tourism minister and former athlete Yoel Razvozov, who justifiably protested the hypocrisy.

Dolgopyat is not alone. Some 400,000 Israelis, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants, cannot get married in Israel because they are not Jewish under Jewish law, or because they don’t have the documents needed to prove that they are. But it’s not just the rights of citizens whom the Rabbinate doesn’t recognize as Jews that are being trampled. Secular Jews who want to marry legally, but not religiously, in accordance with their world view, cannot do so in their own country either, because Israel is the only democratic country in the world that does not allow civil marriage in its territory.

This is a fatal blow to the principle of equality suffered by hundreds of thousands of people ineligible to marry here, including same-sex couples and those of different religions. This injustice affects people of all political camps and it’s about time to correct it and create a mechanism for civil marriage, as an alternative for those who cannot or do not want to be married by the Rabbinate.

On the face of it, the change government, a liberal government with no ultra-Orthodox partners, most of whose component parties support civil marriage, would be ideal for introducing this. The problem is the commitment to preserving the status quo on religion and state that Bennett forced on the alliance with Yair Lapid. Dolgopyat has made history. Does Bennett have the courage to stop the hypocrisy and make some history himself?

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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