Feb. 6, 2007

Avi and Benyamin Rose become Jerusalem's first gay couple acknowledged as married by the Ministry of the Interior

by Gil Zohar

Avi and Benyamin Rose

Like many Anglo new immigrants, Talpiot residents Avi and Benyamin Rose have their tale to tell of the infamous bureaucracy of the Ministry of the Interior – but theirs has a twist. On Monday (January 29) the two men originally from Canada and Britain became the first same-sex couple in Jerusalem to have the Ministry record them in the Population Registry as married, and have that status marked on their respective teudat zehut (Israeli Identity Card).

The homosexual couple tied the knot at New City Hall in Toronto, Canada on June 28. Since same sex marriages were legalized in 2003 in Ontario – Canada's most populous province, the wedding chapel at Toronto's municipal building has become the gay and lesbian parallel to a quickie wedding in Las Vegas; unlike other jurisdictions which permit same sex nuptials, in Ontario neither party has to have residency status to get hitched. The result has been a flood of Israeli same-sex couples flying to the Lake Ontario metropolis to formalize and legalize their commitments.

Among them was former Member of Knesset Uzi Even, the first openly homosexual member of Israel’s parliament and an outspoken gay rights activist since 1982, who married his partner of 19 years Amit Kama in a 2004 civil ceremony in Toronto.

That same year Doug Hauer and Jack Gilad – Israelis living in Boston, Mass. who were among the first homosexual couples to marry after Ontario legalized gay and lesbian marriages, unsuccessfully tried to register their marriage at the Israeli Ministry of the Interior.

As a result, five couples (not including the Roses) petitioned Israel's High Court seeking that the Interior Ministry recognize their marriages just as it does heterosexual civil unions performed in Cyprus or elsewhere. A panel of seven justices, headed by now-retired Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, ruled unanimously in November that those marriages must be recognized by the state.

The Roses were the first couple to implement that historic ruling in Jerusalem. That involved three visits to the Ministry of the Interior and two trips to the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv, they said.

Part of the difficulty had to do with the Ministry of the Interior clerks being unfamiliar with the novel procedure, they said. However some of the rigmarole involved more mundane bureaucracy. Since the Ontario wedding licenses aren't affixed with an apostille (an official ribbon and embossed seal), the clerks insisted that the couple get an affidavit from the Canadian Embassy confirming the document's legality.

Armed with that letter – which cost them NIS 800 in embassy fees, the Roses returned to the downtown main office of the Ministry of the Interior on Shlomzion ha-Malka Street Monday morning.

"We expected the usual – screaming, yelling and waiting in line," said Avi, a 42-year-old instructor with the Young Judaea youth movement who was born in New York, grew up in Winnipeg, Canada and moved to Israel in 2002.

"The truth is they remembered us. There was an issue with the red stamp that was missing. They had never done it, and didn't know what to do. Finally they just crossed out 'wife' and wrote 'ben zug' (spouse)," he noted.

Fortuitously Benyamin nee Todd, 32 - who was born in London, U.K. and worked as a social worker before coming on aliya in August shortly after his civil marriage and chuppah - had already changed his surname to Rose when he initially immigrated. This saved one bureaucratic step when he and Avi had their status revised to married.

"They were just so down to earth," Avi said of the Ministry of the Interior clerks. "It was new for them, and they were being stretched. They said 'mazal tov', and wished us much happiness."

"They were genuinely interested in us," Benyamin added.

"We didn't do this as a publicity stunt," explained Avi, noting he and his partner are inherently private people. "We don't see ourselves as anything unusual. We're two people who met, fell in love, and got engaged and then married."

Their marriage under a chuppah the day after their civil ceremony "has a holiness to it," he insisted. "We went to the mikvah before we got married." At home the couple keep Shabbat and kashrut. They're members of Kol ha-Neshama congregation in Baka.

But being gay in Jerusalem is not so straightforward, they said. On Monday after achieving his historic breakthrough at the Ministry of the Interior, Benyamin showed up late at Ulpan Morasha where he is studying Hebrew ulpan five mornings a week. As well, he learns at the Conservative Yeshiva in the afternoon. Sensitive to homophobia, especially after the riots and demonstrations against this fall's abortive Gay Pride Parade, he was unsure with which of his classmates he could share his achievement.

Wearing tzitzit and a kippa in London, he said, he was spat at, sworn at and stared at – incidents which drove him to make aliya. The anti-gay hysteria in Jerusalem this past summer and fall made the couple question their decision to settle in Jerusalem, they said.

"It felt like we were living in a place where people thought we were unacceptable as Jews and even as human beings," said Avi. "My grandparents went through all this in Germany – being made to feel unsafe, and comparisons to animals."

"We're just a couple," insisted Avi – who encourages other gay couples to pursue committed relationships including marriage. "We're two human beings. And that's the bottom line."