Enough of the legal gymnastics: Why Israel should let its gold medalist marry

Artem Dolgopyat and his fiancée aren’t complaining. But they and 400,000 others are victims of a nonsensical policy that gives them citizenship but denies them the right to wed

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Artem Dolgopyat, Israeli artistic gymnastics men's gold medalist, stands with his fiancée Maria Sakovich, on his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, August 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Artem Dolgopyat, Israeli artistic gymnastics men's gold medalist, stands with his fiancée Maria Sakovich, on his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, August 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Oleg Dolgopyat brought his family to Israel 12 years ago from Ukraine because “I’m Jewish,” he said this week, after his son Artem became only the second Israeli in Olympic history to win a gold medal.

Oleg’s wife Angela, however, is not Jewish. Thus while the family was accorded automatic citizenship in Israel — where the Law of Return requires one Jewish grandparent for citizenship — Artem is not able to marry here, since Judaism is transferred through the generations via matrilineal descent according to halacha (Jewish religious law), halacha prohibits mixed marriages, and Israel has no provision for civil marriage. (A 2010 law provides for “civil union,” but this is a complex and limited arrangement, not a marriage, and is available moreover only to those deemed to be members of no recognized religion.)

Alongside the artistic gymnast’s world-beating success in the floor exercise at Tokyo, marked by his extraordinary sangfroid and humility, Artem’s state-imposed romantic limbo has been the second story of his new prominence.

True to his understated and apparently unrufflable character, Artem, 24, has declined to be drawn into the controversy, saying mildly on Monday that “I think it’s not so appropriate to talk about in front of the whole country… These are things that are in my heart and my own personal issues, so I’d rather not answer that.”

His fiancée, Maria Sakovich, has also resolutely refused to make a public fuss. Not being able to get married in Israel was “not a problem for me,” she told the AFP news agency on Tuesday. After good-naturedly holding up her engagement ring for the cameras, she told Israel’s Channel 12 that she knew they could go abroad to get married, but haven’t found the time to do so because of Artem’s gymnastic commitments.

Israel’s Artem Dolgopyat competes in the artistic gymnastics men’s floor exercise final during the 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on August 1, 2021. (Lionel Bonaventure / AFP)

And there lies the absurdity of the current situation in Israel, where an estimated 400,000 Israeli citizens — Jewish enough to qualify for citizenship, but not halachically Jewish — cannot get married here, but can have their civil marriage recognized by the state if they wed overseas.

It is admirable and proper that the Law of Return offers citizenship in a Zionist response to the Nazis — if you were Jewish enough to be targeted for genocide by Adolf Hitler, you are Jewish enough to be guaranteed a home in the world’s only Jewish state. And nobody is asking the guardians of halacha to abandon the principles of religious Jewish law. (“We know the rules of the game,” Sakovich told Channel 12.) But there is no adequate reason why the Israeli state authorities should not introduce the self-same facility for civil marriage here that they accept when their citizens marry in a civil ceremony overseas.

Opponents of civil marriage in Israel claim that it risks complicating or diluting Israel’s Jewish character, but that’s an argument that’s hard to follow. Those hundreds of thousands of Israeli not-quite-Jews are not seeking to sneak into halachic Judaism; they’re not pushing for quickie, insincere conversions; their state documentation after a civil marriage would not misrepresent their Jewish status.

If they can move to Israel, fight in the IDF for Israel, and, now, win a gold medal for Israel, they should be allowed to get married in Israel.

Wedded together in Olympic history

Finally, just a word on one of the loveliest moments of these Olympics, when another Middle Easterner, Qatar’s high-jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim, also secured his country’s second-ever gold.

Barshim had been locked in competition with his rival and friend, Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi for two hours, and they simply could not be separated. Both were error-free in clearing the bar up to 2.37 meters; then both failed three times to clear 2.39 — the Olympic record height.

They were headed for a jump-off when it occurred to Barshim to ask the official in charge, “Can we have two golds?” a request ostensibly at odds with the purest principles of sporting competition.

Gianmarco Tamberi, of Italy celebrates with Mutaz Barshim of Qatar after they won joint gold in the men’s high jump at the 2020 Olympics, August 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Actually, “it’s possible,” the official said from behind his mask, and began to elaborate, but Barshim and Tamberi were no longer listening. They had already exchanged glances of joint assent and slapped hands, and Tamberi had high-jumped onto Barshim’s hips and wrapped both arms around his neck.

Those two, at least, are bound together in marriage — Olympic gold medal-style.

** This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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