Nearly 20 percent of the olim Israel has absorbed from the former Soviet Union are not considered Jews according to halachah, or traditional Jewish law, according to a recently released report.
The report, prepared by the Interior Ministry’s Population Census Bureau for the Ministerial Committee on Alternate Burials, states that of the 555,370 olim that have arrived from the former Soviet Union since 1989, 110,283 are not considered Jewish in the eyes of halachah.
The report by the committee, headed by Justice Minister David Libai, comes in response to what it saw as the real need and distress of non-Jews who could not find burial grounds in Israel.
Many of these olim have israeli identity cards that list “not registered” under nationality — in other words, no registered religion.
Recently, several deceased olim from the former Soviet Union have been held in morgues for as long as one week until burial grounds could be found.
Orthodox burial societies have refused to bury these olim because their Jewishness was in question.
The Census Bureau figures dispel the notion propagated by fervently Orthodox members of Knesset that non-Jewish olim constitute between 30 percent and 40 percent of the immigrant population, said Amnon Be’eri, spokesman for Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban.
Be’eri acknowledged, however, that the percentage of non-Jews was rising, and has gone up 24 percent this year.
According to Orthodox law, only those born to a Jewish mother, or those who undergo an Orthodox conversion, are recognized as Jewish, entitling them to be buried in a Jewish cemetery in Israel.
Be’eri said in an interview that all the Soviet immigrants, whether considered Jewish according to halachah or not, have come to Israel under the Law of Return, a secular law.
This law entitles them to all the rights of benefits of Jewish olim, including an answer to their marital and burial needs, he said.
Since the days of the founding of the State of Israel, the Orthodox establishment has had a monopoly of authority over all Jewish life-cycle ceremonies, including burials.
The one exception was kibbutzim, which were given control over their own burial grounds and were free to choose their own ceremonies and traditions.
Responding to the new report, Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency-World Zionist Organization, told the Ha’aretz daily that his agency will continue to rescue whoever can be saved from the Soviet Union.
“Only here in Israel will we start to solve their marital and religious status,” he said.
“The Jewish Agency will continue with its efforts to bring to Israel olim from the former USSR, including the non-Jews. During thousands of years in exile there were always members of other religion who joined the Jewish people,” Burg said.
Burg, who is observant, said he believes that his is the great test of the religious establishment in Israel.
“Will it be able to open up and be flexible toward the non-Jewish olim from the former USSR, and turn them into an inseparable part of the common fate of the Jewish people,” he said.
Libai, Tsaban and the other committee members — Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, minister of housing; Shimon Shetreet, minister for religious affairs and for economic and social development; and Uzi Baram, minister of the interior — are scheduled to meet during the next week in order to continue their efforts to provide a solution for the burial of non-Jews.
Shetreet recently said that he would demand that most Jewish burial societies allocate grounds for alternative burials.
A spokesman fro Shetreet explained that this requirement will have to be met by the societies in order for their licenses to be renewed.
Israel must provide burial grounds for those “who saw themselves as Jews during their lifetime, but whose Jewishness came under question after their death,” the spokesman said.