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Despite being broadsided by both secular liberals and haredi Ashkenazim, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann are pushing ahead with legislation that would permit civil marriages among non-Jewish Israelis.
"The chief rabbi is resolved to present the legislation to all the major rabbinic authorities in the coming weeks in an attempt to gain their backing," said Amar's aide Thursday. "We believe that as soon as the rabbis see what is written in the legislation they will agree to it."
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Friedmann said the minister was preparing the civil marriage legislation.
"The law is being scrutinized and prepared for final draft by the ministry's professional level," said Tzachi Moshe, Friedmann's press adviser.
Last week, Amar and Friedmann reached an agreement in principle on legislation that would permit Israelis who are not Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish standards and who are not affiliated to any other religion to marry one another.
If the legislation is passed, it would be the first time since the establishment of the state that people who fell into this category would be allowed to marry. However, since the publication of the decision, Amar and Friedmann have come under fire from both haredi and secular circles.
Liberal-minded groups have attacked the legislation's limited scope and demand that civil marriages be open to all Israeli citizens, both Jewish and gentile.
For instance, the Israeli Reform Movement complained that only a fraction of Israeli citizens would be affected. Based on figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, between the years 2000 and 2004 about 32,000 couples were married. But in just 1,700 of the cases were both the bride and the groom gentiles.
These groups also oppose anchoring in legislation "blacklists" of Israelis who, according to Jewish law, are barred from marrying. This blacklist or data base, which has been in use by rabbinic authorities since before the creation of the state, would include Israelis who are not considered Jewish and are, therefore, eligible for civil arrangements.
A report that appeared in Ha'aretz earlier this week quoted sources who claimed that the blacklist of Israeli citizens who are barred from marriage was a violation of basic privacy rights.
However, Shimon Ya'acobi, legal adviser to the Rabbinical Court Administration, said the report was incorrect. Contrary to what was reported, said Ya'acobi, "every Israeli citizen who is added to the list is notified in advance and is given a chance to appeal the decision before the Supreme Rabbinic Court."
The report, Ya'acobi said, also wrongly stated that the rabbinic establishment would "reinstitute" the use of the blacklist as part of the civil marriages deal being negotiated between Amar and Friedmann.
In reality, said Ya'acobi, the list "has existed, exists and will continue to exist in the future. Use of the list was even approved by Professor Aharon Barak in 1976 when he served as attorney general."
In Barak's 18-page directive, which holds less legal weight than a Knesset law but nevertheless provides significant legal backing, the former president of the Supreme Court approved of the blacklists.
Barak stated that compiling and maintaining the lists fell completely under the jurisdiction of the rabbinic courts since, according to Israeli law, all marriages and divorces must be done in accordance with Jewish law.
In Israel, there is no separation of religion and state and the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has a monopoly over determining personal status issues such as deciding who is and who is not a Jew and who can and who cannot get married.
"We think it is important that the time has come that the legal basis for keeping the lists will not just be an attorney general directive. Rather, it will be anchored in Knesset law," said Ya'acobi.
Meanwhile, Amar's support for the civil marriage legislation, which also has the backing of Shas spiritual head Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has pitted the chief rabbi and the entire Shas-affiliated Sephardi haredi community against Ashkenazi haredi leadership.
The haredi daily Yated Ne'eman, which represents the Lithuanian yeshiva world, and its most important halachic authority, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, viciously attacked the Amar-Friedmann deal calling it "a spiritual danger to the Jewish people."
In a patronizing tone, the paper's editorial staff criticized Amar for reaching an agreement with Friedmann without first consulting with Ashkenazi rabbinic leadership.
Rabbi Nahum Eisenstein, an expert on conversion issues who was in contact with Elyashiv on the issue of the civil marriages law said that Amar put together the deal in a "sloppy" way.
"In theory, we might have been able to reach an agreement on civil marriages. But now it is too late. We are waiting for Amar to make a public announcement that he is retracting the whole deal."
Ashkenazi haredim oppose the legislation because they are concerned it would create a dangerous precedent - a "slippery slope" - that would quickly lead to the institutionalization of civil marriages between Jews and non-Jews. Inter-marriage is considered by Orthodox Jews to be the single greatest threat to Jewish continuity.