For Love or Money

A wave of lawsuits has begun to flood the courts - compensation suits filed by non-Jewish immigrant couples who married abroad and are now demanding the state compensate them for their expenses and anguish.

Last week two such suits were filed at the Haifa Magistrate's Court by couples who live in Carmiel. Next week a few more suits will be filed, this time by Haifa residents, and later more will be filed in Tel Aviv. This rash of suits by mixed couples or immigrants lacking a religion is being organized by the Association for Rights of Mixed Families. The association's initial goal is that 10-15 suits be filed, on the assumption that they will be combined for a single principle hearing.

Dimitri and Inessa Yakubovich met in early 2004. She was 25, he 24. Both of Inessa's parents are Jewish. Dimitri has a Jewish father, meaning he is not Jewish according to halakha. They both served as drivers in the Israel Defense Forces. A short while after they first met, they began living together.

That summer they decided to get married. She had just received a NIS 9,000 grant from the army, which paid for their wedding in Sofia, Bulgaria. Since they traveled alone, rather than with a group, the wedding arrangements took a week, rather than the usual three days. They figure their expenses totaled $2,000.

"Every little thing there costs money," lamented Inessa. "You file a petition, it costs money. A international notarized document also has its price." There were also unofficial payments to speed things up.

"There was no festive atmosphere," recalls Inessa. "It was a very small wedding, just my husband and the witnesses - someone we had met in Israel who was going to Bulgaria to visit her mother, and the mother. It was my wedding, and I couldn't have my parents and family there, and I felt a bit uncomfortable and alone."

"You feel like a second-class [citizen] who cannot marry in Israel and must go abroad," says Dimitri. "I serve in the reserves like everyone else, and no one asks me if I'm half-Jewish. It shouldn't be like this."

"We fled Siberia because of anti-Semitism," says Inessa. "There I was a Jew and here I am a Russian. What is being done to us is not fair."

Two and a half years have passed since then. Now they have a child. The suit is important to them, says Inessa, because there are couples who have no money to go abroad to get married.

State failure

Attorney Roman Katsman is filing the suits on behalf of the organization. "Since the plaintiffs have no religion and belong to no religious ethnic group," states one of the suits "they had no possibility of marrying in Israel, due to a failing and/or negligence on the part of the state."

Katsman claims that the state "allows Israeli citizens who have no religion to be discriminated against and be deprived in relation to other citizens."

Katsman notes that Israel "has joined international conventions that state, 'Every man or woman who reaches the age of majority is eligible to enter the covenant of marriage and raise a family without restrictions based on race, citizenship or religion.'"

Surprisingly, paragraph 2 of the Marriage and Divorce Ordinance states civil marriages can be conducted before "the registering authority." In practice, however, writes Katsman, Israel has not established such an authority.

Katsman is claiming $1,000 or more oh behalf of each couple for wedding expenses in Cyprus or Bulgaria. He contends that the state "caused the plaintiffs a sense of humiliation and discrimination by making them feel like second-class citizens and thus caused the plaintiffs non-monetary damage (anguish, disappointment, pain and suffering) since they immigrated to Israel." He estimates the value of this non-monetary damage at NIS 100,000. Since the plaintiffs do not have the means to pay the filing fee for such a large suit, they are each demanding about NIS 20,000.

"The state should have allowed these couples the basic human right to marry," says Itamar Shahar, the spokesman for the Association for the Protection of Mixed Families' Rights. "If the state does not do this, it has to pay [the couples'] expenses."

Shahar warns, "The mixed families could become a new minority in Israeli society that feels deprived and discriminated against. We expect the suits to pressure the state to find a solution."

Shabbat Law making progress

On Sunday the draft bill on the Shabbat Law will be raised for discussion by the ministerial committee for legislation. By next Wednesday there is a reasonable chance that it will be brought before the Knesset plenum for its preliminary reading. Knesset member Natan Sharansky, one of the law's staunchest supporters, is about to leave the Knesset and wants the law to be passed while he still has his seat.

The Shabbat Law is basically an expression of the Gavison-Medan Covenant, which seeks to arrange relations between the religious and secular in Israel. Under the proposed law, commercial centers that operate on Shabbat, such as Shefayim and Bilu Junction, will be closed, but cultural and entertainment enterprises and public transportation will be allowed to operate on a limited scale.

Shopping is currently a major pastime for Israelis. Ostensibly, it is difficult to imagine shopping centers being closed on Shabbat, but the law is being promoted by a special lobby - the lobby for the implementation of the Gavison-Medan Covenant - which is supported by a number of strong organizations such as the Avichai Foundation, the Israel Institute for Democracy and the Yahad Council for religious and secular relations.

A coalition of Knesset members from most of the factions, including Kadima, has formed around the law. Three lobbying and public relations firms are working to get the law passed. Other figures and organizations that support the law include MK Shelly Yachimovich, who wants to reduce work on Shabbat, and merchants organizations, which want to reduce competition from the big shopping centers. The latter have yet to organize themselves against the law.

Despite this impressive coalition, the law's advocates are not convinced it will pass. They fear mainly the opposition of Shas, which has the right to veto any change in religious legislation. Udi Cohen, of the Yahad Council, says the coalition is definitely ready for its first test, and says that even if the law does not pass this time, it can be raised for a vote in another six months.