JERUSALEM, Nov. 29 (JTA) — As the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia escalated in the early 1990s, Yuri Bocharov, a petroleum engineer from the Azeri capital of Baku, wanted to save his family.
Although Bocharov is not Jewish, his wife, Rima, is, so the couple and their son filed papers with the Jewish Agency for Israel and moved to the Jewish state.
The family now lives near Haifa. Yuri Bocharov works in the construction industry, and although the “nationality” clause on his identity card has been left blank, he considers himself a full-fledged citizen.
Unwittingly Bocharov and an estimated 200,000 immigrants find themselves at the center of a debate raging in Israel over its policy on non-Jewish immigration.
“This is a state of the Jews, it is part of Jewish history,” Bocharov says in Hebrew. “But we are building a democratic state, too. Why don’t they ask you in the U.S. or England who you are?”
That question summarizes the debate that has swept Israel as it grapples with its identity as a Jewish state, as well as its responsibility toward a growing number of non-Jewish relatives of Jews who want to live in the country.
The debate surfaced at the Cabinet meeting on Sunday as Prime Minister Ehud Barak firmly rejected any move to change Israel’s Law of Return, which grants children, spouses and grandchildren of Jews the right to automatic citizenship.
According to government officials, about 25 percent of the more than 800,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the past decade are not Jewish. More than 50 percent of those arriving this year are gentiles.
Although statistics are sketchy, officials say the vast majority of non-Jews have come to Israel legally, in line with the Law of Return.
Only a very small number are believed to have exploited the law and forged documents to gain entry to Israel.
The problem with the immigration of non-Jews, according to Natan Sharansky, the minister of the interior and perhaps Israel’s most famous Russian immigrant, is that the addition of a sizable non-Jewish population may strain an already fragile society.
“The reason why there are so many passions and extremes when we deal with these questions is because we are in the process of forming the character of Jewish Israeli society,” Sharansky, the head of the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah immigrants-rights party, said in a telephone interview with JTA.
“The State of Israel is more or less in the final stages of this process, but what kind of society we are and what it means to be Jewish is still a big question.”
“On the one hand, we want to build a state which has a unique connection with the Jewish people, and its laws have to express this,” he said. “On the other hand, we are accepting people who are part of the family of the Jews but who are not part of the people.”
In Israel, where Orthodox rabbis control marriage, divorce and burials, the acceptance of non-Jewish immigrants has often been far from familial, and a host of practical problems in these areas need to be resolved.
In recent weeks, some haredi, or fervently Orthodox, politicians and rabbis have raised the issue even higher on the public agenda with a series of inflammatory remarks.
One haredi politician, speaking during a Knesset committee meeting, branded all non-Jewish immigrants a “fifth column.”
Last week Rabbi David Benizri held a vocal protest outside a non-kosher Russian butcher in the town of Bet Shemesh and lashed out at immigrants for “defiling” the country with the “illnesses of Russia.”
According to the Ha’aretz newspaper, Benizri’s brother, Health Minister Shlomo Benizri of Shas distanced himself from the remarks during a Cabinet meeting, but then went on to accuse the immigrants of bringing “depravity and prostitution” to Israel.
Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a haredi Knesset member from the United Torah Judaism bloc, has criticized his colleagues for these outbursts. He shares some common ground with Sharansky in his analysis of the roots of the problem.
“We have an identity crisis among ourselves,” says Ravitz. “We are talking about a spiritual crisis, and if you take these problems, and bring in a cynical way thousands of people who are shattering the concept of a Jewish state, it creates a problem for Israeli society.”
Ravitz said he has nothing against non-Jewish immigrants who came to Israel legally. But he is opposed to the Jewish Agency actively encouraging gentiles with loose connections to the Jewish people to immigrate.
Ravitz has also drafted a proposal to change the Law of Return, specifically the part allowing those with a Jewish grandparent to immigrate.
Barak made it clear Sunday that he opposes any change in the law.
But Sharansky said that although the law should not be fundamentally altered, its details should not be considered “sacred.” However, changing the Law of Return along the lines suggested by Ravitz would only solve a small part of the problem.
Even the haredim do not advocate a more sweeping change to the law, such as preventing non-Jewish spouses or children of Jews from coming to Israel.
It is not the first time the Law of Return has been challenged. The original law of 1950 laid out the principle of automatic Israeli citizenship “to any Jew who expresses his will to live in the State of Israel.”
The principle was put to the test in 1958 when Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Jew who converted to Christianity and became a monk known as Brother Daniel, claimed the right to Israeli citizenship. According to halachah, or Jewish law, he was technically a Jew since his mother was Jewish. But the Supreme Court ruled that the term Jew did not apply to someone who had voluntarily converted away from Judaism.
In 1970, Binyamin Shalit, an Israeli Jew who married a non-Jewish Scottish woman, insisted on registering his children as Jews since they were part of the Jewish people. The Supreme Court backed Shalit, but Golda Meir, then prime minister, bowed to pressure from the Orthodox parties and changed another law to prohibit similar moves.
At the same time, to satisfy secular parties, the Law of Return was expanded to grant automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish parent, spouse or grandparent
“The real issue here for most people in the center or the balanced center is what it means to be a Jew,” says Bernard Susser, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University and co-author of a recent book entitled “Choosing Survival: Strategies for a Jewish Future.”
“For most secular Israelis, Jewishness is not a halachic identity, but rather it’s a matter of historical consciousness — throwing your lot in with the Jewish people and seeing yourself as part of Jewish history. In that regard, a great many immigrants, although halachically not Jewish, are certainly Jewish.”
However, says Susser, even many secular Israelis feel uncomfortable accepting gentile immigrants who do not want to join the Jewish people and are simply seeking refuge.
The Law of Return was written at a time when it was inconceivable that Israel would have a thriving economy that would become a magnet for immigration from poorer countries.
Chaim Chesler, treasurer of the Jewish Agency, says the solution is more Jewish education and conversion before the immigrants leave home. Changing the Law of Return, he says, is not the answer.
“We cannot punish the Jews or relatives or relatives of relatives after 73 years of a Communist regime during which holding a Hebrew-language book was enough to be sent to Siberia,” Chesler says. “I believe that although many immigrants may not be Jewish according to halachah, either they or their children will eventually become a part of the Jewish people.”
For immigrants like Yuri Bocharov, that is easier said than done. In 1993 Bocharov explored what it would take to become Jewish. He discovered that in order to convert in Israel, he would have to observe the Sabbath, kosher laws and other religious practices according to Orthodox tradition.
“When I understood the whole story, I said, sorry — this is not for me, I am a complete secularist,” Bocharov says.
And if there were an alternative way to convert, through the Reform or Conservative movements? “Then,” says Bocharov, “maybe I would go in that direction.”