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Russian Jews fear change in law

MOSCOW, Jan. 20 (JTA) — Jews in the former Soviet Union are concerned about possible changes in the law guaranteeing Jews, their spouses, children and grandchildren automatic citizenship in Israel.

In Israel, proposals for a change in the Law of Return that could affect non-Jewish spouses and their offspring have been floated in recent months amid reports that more than half of all recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not Jewish, according to Jewish law.

“If we start changing the Law of Return, we will” destroy emigration from the former Soviet Union, said Leonid Dreyer, a university lecturer from Moscow.

Nearly 1 million people, one-sixth of Israel’s total population, came from the former Soviet Union in the past decade, providing the largest source of immigration to Israel.

Some 67,000 Jews from the region immigrated to Israel in 1999, up from 46,000 in 1998, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel. Emigration from Russia alone rose 130 percent, from 14,000 to 32,000.

A Russian Zionist organization, launched at a December conference of the umbrella Va’ad Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Russia, vigorously condemned “attempts to modify the Law of Return, which can cause serious problems to the process of repatriation of Russian Jews” and called on the Israeli government and the Knesset to maintain the status quo.

In November, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told his Cabinet he opposes any changes in the law, but not all Russian immigrants to the Jewish state agree.

“It would be OK to modify the law by cutting off the grandchildren of the Jews and leaving the rest as it is,” said Sergey Lugovskoy, who has lived for 12 years in the West Bank town of Kiryat Arba near Hebron.

But across the former Soviet Union, sentiment is strongly in favor of keeping the law as it is.

“I don’t think the Law of Return should be ‘toughened,’ ” said Salmaz Yusifova, who heads the Baku, Azerbaijan, branch of the Jewish women’s organization Chava. She said there are many full Jews in her region who want to leave “but can’t prove their Jewishness, because of lost documents” or because of “parents wrongly registered as non-Jews. They shouldn’t be left out.”

Alla Levy, herself a Soviet emigre to Israel who currently heads the Moscow office of the Jewish Agency, admits that changes need to be made in the system, but says the answer is not to amend the Law of Return.

“It’s true that a great deal of the new immigrants are absolutely unprepared for the new cultural and social environment they encounter in Israel, but I think the solution to this problem lies not in limiting the scope of the immigration, but in intensifying the work with potential immigrants while they are still” in Russia.

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