Israel's Olympic hero can't get married, but that may soon change

Artem Dolgopyat and Maria Masha Sakovichas.
(Image credit: Illustrated | AP Images, iStock)

Artem Dolgopyat is an Israeli national hero. A champion gymnast from a small country with few world-class athletes, Dolgopyat won Israel's second-ever gold medal in the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Dolgopyat is also a symbol of long-running controversy. Under Israeli law, all marriages must be conducted by legally-recognized religious authorities. For Jews, that means the Chief Rabbinate, which is dominated by Haredi (so-called "ultra-Orthodox") officials.

Although he immigrated under Israel's law of return, which guarantees citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize the Ukrainian-born Dolgopyat as religiously Jewish, because his mother is not. As a result, Dolgopyat is unable to marry his longtime girlfriend in the State of Israel.

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It's a common situation. Dolgopyat is among about 400,000 immigrant Israelis who are not legally Jewish. As a result, they cannot participate in recognized marriages. Interfaith couples face similar problems.

That may be changing, though. A new survey by religious freedom group Hiddush found that 65 percent of Jewish Israelis favor the establishment of civil marriage, outside the authority of the Chief Rabbinate.

It's not surprising that supporters of left-wing parties support the concept. But a majority of voters for conservative Likud and Yisrael Beteinu held the same view. And there are hints that opinion is changing in the Haredi community. Last week, Jerusalem's Haredi deputy mayor Haim Cohen wrote a column considering sharper separation between religion and state.

The idea that both religious communities and governments benefit from distinct spheres of operation is a classic element of Western liberalism. According to the Hiddush study, that view is still very unpopular among Haredi voters, at least where marriage is concerned. Yet, despite vitriolic denunciations of the current government, the Haredi leadership seems to be recognizing the practical limits of its ability to regulate the non-Haredi majority. Dolgopyat and others in his situation may not have to wait much longer.

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