Israel's Olympic gold revives civil marriage cause
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Tel Aviv (AFP) –
Israel's first gold-medal Olympic gymnast Artem Dolgopyat returned from Tokyo on Tuesday to a hero's welcome and controversy over his inability to marry in his adopted country.
Dolgopyat, 24, was born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, meaning he is not considered Jewish in Israel, where marriage is performed only by religious authorities who require couples to be of the same faith.
Speaking on Israel's 103FM radio, Dolgopyat's mother Angela Bilen said her son had been dating his girlfriend for years but the two cannot wed in Israel.
"The state doesn't let him get married," she said. "He has to go abroad, but he can't travel abroad because he has to do sports all the time."
"I want grandchildren," she said.
Ukraine-born Dolgopyat himself declined to speak about marriage on Tuesday, saying it was "personal."
Outside the airport, he wiped his hair after being showered with champagne and held up his gold medal, glinting in the hot August sun.
"I want to cry from all the emotion," he said.
- 'Not a problem' -
Dolgopyat's father Oleg told AFP he moved to Israel from Ukraine when Artem was 12 because "I'm Jewish" and because the boy "needed something more advanced" in terms of training.
His mother said she thought about converting to Judaism when she arrived in Israel "but there was no time. After work I had to go with Artem to sports."
Maria Sakovich said she met Dolgopyat five years ago in Belarus and they have been living together for the past three years in Israel.
Sakovich, 25, said they were engaged but that marriage was "not a problem for me".
Rather, she was focused on her boyfriend avoiding injury.
In a non-pandemic year she would have accompanied him to Tokyo, though it was easier for her to watch his gravity-defying floor exercise on television, she said.
"This is the first thing I'm worried about. I'm not so much worried about the medals, the most important for me is for him to stay healthy," she said.
Even though the couple declines to represent the cause for civil marriage, Dolgopyat's win has brought the issue to the forefront.
"Israeli pride on the podium and second class under the (wedding) canopy," tweeted Israel's Russian-born Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov, who represented Israel in judo at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Labor Party chair Merav Michaeli, a minister in Israel's coalition government, vowed to fight to end the religious hold on marriage.
"The time has come that everyone will be able to marry, as she chooses, or he chooses," she said at a party meeting.
Attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski of the Israel Religious Action Center told AFP that the current marriage law was "a grave infringement on the rights of Israelis".
However, she said, under Israel's diverse coalition, which includes Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's religious Yamina party and the conservative Islamic Raam, "politically I'm not sure it's going to happen in the near future".
Retiree Ilana Zilbershtien stopped by Dolgopyat's welcoming ceremony as she passed through the airport.
She had cried with joy when she saw Dolgopyat win gold, but she did not think Israel should change its marriage laws.
"The state needs to stay Jewish. We don't have another state," she said. "He can convert."
© 2021 AFP