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Official Asked to Prove Claim That Many Olim Are Not Jewish

Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz was challenged in the Knesset on Wednesday to back up his charge that 30 to 35 percent of immigrants arriving in Israel from the Soviet Union are not Jews according to halachah, or religious law.

The minister, who sits in the Cabinet as an independent since he quit the Orthodox Shas party, dropped his bombshell while visiting Moscow two weeks ago.

He has since been assailed by many public figures for raising a very sensitive issue at a time when it could only harm immigration.

Peretz told a news conference here Tuesday that while he wanted to broach the subject with care and sensitivity, “it is impossible to continue sweeping the problem under the carpet.”

The Knesset devoted Wednesday’s session to immigration and absorption. Volunteer organizations dealing with immigrants were invited. Ministers concerned with the various aspects of immigrant absorption were on hand to field questions.

But the orderly discussion soon degenerated into a shouting match between Peretz and his predecessor, Laborite Ya’acov Tsur.

Peretz claims he has secret documents proving beyond doubt that 30 to 35 percent of the Soviet immigrants do not satisfy halachic criteria of Jewish identity, though they are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

Soviet Jews had a very high rate of intermarriage during the 70 years of Communist rule, and many are offspring of mothers who would not be Jewish as defined by the Israeli rabbinate. Except for the Reform movement, Jewish identity is passed on only through the mother.

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The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot reported Tuesday that Arye Levin, who heads the Israeli consular mission in Moscow, sent a secret report to his superiors at the Foreign Ministry, stating that about 25 percent of the Soviet immigrants are halachically not Jews.

But Interior Minister Arye Deri, a former Shas colleague of Peretz’s, insists that no more than 4.8 percent of the immigrants can be defined as non-Jewish.

The two Orthodox ministers have been summoned to meetings with the Ashkenazic and Sephardic chief rabbis, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliahu, to try to rationalize the differences.

Also invited was Interior Minister Avner Shaki of the National Religious Party, who was asked to explain what his ministry is doing about issuing marriage licenses.

So far, no decisions have been made.

Meanwhile, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon announced Wednesday that the government has decided to buy another 33,000 small mobile homes, which he claims will house 150,000 new immigrants.

Observers said it was only a “drop in the bucket” that will hardly help solve the immigrant housing shortage.

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