An ongoing debate within Israeli society about non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union took a new turn this week with the release of the latest figures by the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Contrary to a report published last month, which said more than 20 percent of the 530,000 olim, or new immigrants, who came from the former Soviet Union between 1990 and 1993 were non-Jews — the new report put the figure at less than 10 percent.
The new report is based on updated date from the Interior Ministry, which had issued the earlier report.
The earlier report had caused an uproar in Israel. White some had used the numbers to bolster support for a new system allowing for secular marriages and burials, Orthodox Knesset members and rabbis had countered by demanding a change in the Law Of Return that would restrict the immigration of non-Jews to Israel.
In an interview on Israel Radio, Yair Tsaban, minister of immigrant absorption, explained the discrepancy between the two reports, saying that only those olim who can prove their Jewish lineage beyond any doubt are registered as Jews by the Interior Ministry.
The rest are registered as either “other,” referring to a Christian or Muslim background, or as “unknown.”
A sizeable number of olim have difficulties proving their Jewishness, he said, either because they did not lead a Jewish life or because they have no documents or witnesses to testify to their Jewish lineage.
Tsaban said that in the previous report, the two categories — “other” and “unknown” — were added up and presented as non-Jews, which explains the higher figure.
The new report, based on the latest data, shows that many of those who were initially registered as unknown had since managed to prove their Jewishness.
Tsaban expressed concern over the declining number of non-Jews among the olim from the former Soviet Union during 1994.
“This may sound paradoxical, but I am concerned, as there are mixed marriages all over the world, and the message we should be sending is that our doors are open to all of them,” he said on Israel Television.
“We don’t want to keep the mixed marriages away; on the contrary, we want to bring them closer to us. But I’m afraid that what happened here last year with burials, the horror stories of non-Jews who could not find burial grounds, and similar incidents, scared away the olim of mixed marriages from coming here,” he said.
Tsaban also called on Israel’s chief rabbis to do their utmost to help absorb the new olim.
He said the Orthodox community should stop objecting to civil marriages, at least for those who are prevented from getting married under Jewish law.
He also stressed that conversion to Judaism should be made readily available to anyone who wishes to convert, and that more flexible solutions should be found for providing circumcisions and secular burials to those who are not Jewish.
He concluded the television interview by welcoming the non-Jewish immigrants, adding that their “children will be raised here as good Jews and Israeli society will only benefit from them.”