Israel crisis over rabbis' marriage blacklist

PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

The blacklist of 4,150 Jews who are not allowed to marry in Israel is being reduced in spite of opposition from Orthodox religious parties.

The government is attempting to reform the way the Orthodox Rabbinate has kept the names on the blacklist secret. People are on it because they are the children of a woman who has committed adultery or is not sufficiently Jewish. The Rabbinate forbids a Jew to marry a non-Jew or, for instance, a descendant of the priestly class to marry a divorcee.

The row started when the Minister of Religious Affairs, Shimon Shitrit, said that people were often on the blacklist because of rumours about their private lives or for no known reason. He also outraged the religious parties by saying that the government should pay people who cannot get married in Israel, although they are Israeli citizens, to go to another country to get married.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the small but powerful Shas party, said: "Shitrit is damaging what is holy to the Jewish people, and is dealing with sacred issues that those greater than him dared not touch." Shas threatened to propose a no-confidence motion in the Knesset. Mr Shitrit was forced to back away from his earlier plan to set up a register to supervise the blacklist.

Under a compromise, which largely maintains the status quo, rabbis will continue to have the final say on who is on the blacklist. After a meeting with the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, and Mr Shitrit it was announced that a person will only be placed on the list as the result of a decision by a rabbinical court, not just because of reports or rumours.

None of this will ease the problems of secular Israelis - a majority of the population - trying to get married, divorced or buried. All these are the monopoly of the Orthodox Rabbinate. In addition to those who cannot get married, there many more who do not want an Orthodox wedding and its rituals. More than 1,000 people fly to Cyprus to get married every year and another 250 pay $500 (pounds 310) for a marriage certificate issued in Paraguay. At least 50,000 of the Russians who have immigrated to Israel since 1989 are not considered Jewish by the Rabbinate, which refuses to marry them.

Under attack from powerful religious figures Mr Shitrit was reportedly told by the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to cancel a visit to the US planned for this week to sort out the crisis.

Religious leaders said they suspected him of planning to introduce civil marriage. Backing away from radical reforms the minister has been forced to make do with cleaning up the way the blacklist is compiled, giving those on it the right to appeal and to state their case before a rabbinical court.

The proposal to give people 2,500 shekels (pounds 520) to fly to Cyprus to get married also appears to have been dropped.

The government is moving a step forward in resolving the problems of Israelis who cannot get buried in a Jewish cemetery. A new 10-acre cemetery at Beersheba in the south of the country is being developed and will be open in a few months.

The government's Interministerial Committee on Alternative Burial is deciding what religious symbols are to be allowed in the burial ground.

Russian immigrants have complained that some of their number in the Israeli army could not get buried even if they were killed in battle because the Rabbinate did not recognise them as Jewish.

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