JERUSALEM, Nov. 9 (JTA) — The flow of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union has become a flash point of controversy in Israel, with one legislator going so far as to call it a “national security problem.”
Nobody knows exactly how many non-Jews have arrived in Israel among the more than 800,000 immigrants who came during the past decade from Russia and the other former Soviet republics.
Some officials estimate that about 25 percent of the immigrants who arrived during that period, and more than 50 percent of those arriving today, are not Jewish.
The debate has prompted the same legislator, Shmuel Halpert, a Knesset member from the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, to propose a change tightening the Law of Return, which grants anyone who had a Jewish grandparent the right to immediate Israeli citizenship.
Batya Carmon, director of the Visa Department at Israel’s Interior Ministry, told a Knesset panel that many non-Jews from the former Soviet Union have forged documents to resettle in Israel.
“Whoever immigrates to Israel on the basis of the Law of Return has the right to come,” said Carmon on Tuesday at the Knesset’s Immigration and Absorption Committee, which held a heated debate on the issue.
“The problem is with all those people who are exploiting the law of return while acquiring a false identity.”
Carmon estimated that there are “thousands of people running around the country whose true identities are not known.”
She urged the police to crack down on the fraud, but recognized the difficulties involved. “You cannot go knocking on doors of new immigrants and asking, ‘Pardon me sir, can we see your papers because we suspect you entered Israel fraudulently,’ ” she said.
The debate heated up when Halpert unleashed sweeping condemnations of the non-Jewish immigrants, accusing them of being responsible for the organized crime and prostitution that many Israelis believe is prevalent among emigres from the former Soviet Union.
Knesset members from across the board condemned his remarks and urged Halpert to apologize, but he refused.
Last week Halpert — who initiated Tuesday’s debate — submitted a bill to change the Law of Return to prevent more non-Jews from entering the country.
Under his proposal, only those who are Jews according to Orthodox law, meaning those who have a Jewish mother, would be eligible for Israeli citizenship.
Part of the problem is that the founders of Israel, who wrote the Law of Return, never imagined that the struggling Jewish state would one day boast a thriving economy that would attract non-Jews from poorer countries such as Russia.
But several Knesset members rejected Halpert’s initiative.
“The existing law is a fundamental element of the Jewish state,” said Avshalom Vilan, a Knesset member from the left-leaning Meretz Party.
Instead, Vilan suggested easing up on the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s conversion policy. “I want to remind you that the Orthodox are not the only stream. There are Conservative and Reform movements as well,” he said.
Much of the pressure to reach a solution to the ongoing debate over Orthodox control of conversions in Israel is linked to the Russian immigrant issue. Many immigrant leaders and their sympathizers accuse the Orthodox establishment of making it very difficult for immigrants to convert.
Rabbi Yitzhak Grossman, a fervently Orthodox member of the Chief Rabbinate’s council, insisted that the rabbinate is making it easier for immigrants to convert. “But there are many immigrants that do not want to convert,” he said.
Others argue that many immigrants want to be Jewish, but not Orthodox. “The only way to join the Jewish people [in Israel] is through Orthodoxy,” said Victor Brailovsky, an immigrant from the secular Shinui Party, who urged a solution for those who want Reform and Conservative conversions.
“The central problem on the agenda today is the conversion problem,” said Naomi Blumenthal, the committee chair and a Likud Knesset member. “If different types of conversions were available, they would convert.”
The Jewish Agency for Israel, which brought most of the immigrants to the Jewish state, has been criticized over the issue of non-Jewish immigrants.
At the committee meeting, a photocopy of a Russian newspaper advertisement was distributed. In the ad, the Jewish Agency appealed to non-Jewish Russians of Jewish ancestry to immigrate.
“If at least one of your grandparents from your father’s or mother’s side is registered as Jewish, you have the right to immigrate to Israel,” declared the ad.
Chaim Chesler, Jewish Agency treasurer, denied the agency had distributed the ad and rejected responsibility for the influx of non-Jews. “We at the Jewish Agency implement the policy of the state of Israel,” said Chesler. “So what do you want to do, kill the messenger?”