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As More Non-jews Come to Israel, Israelis Re-examine Russian Aliyah

September 11, 2002
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A renewed call to change the Law of Return which guarantees citizenship to any Jew in Israel with at least one Jewish grandparent — is turning the spotlight on immigration from the former Soviet Union.

Nearly 1 million immigrants have moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union since the floodgates opened in the late 1980s — and as many as a quarter of them are not Jews according to religious law, experts say.

Though immigration has tailed off sharply in recent years, the percentage of non-Jews among the immigrants has risen as high as 70 percent, according to Israel’s chief rabbis.

The Interior Ministry puts the figure slightly lower — at 58 percent for the first half of 2002 — but still far above what it was in previous years.

The controversy over Russian immigration is not academic. With Israel defining itself as the Jewish state — and with the rigorously Orthodox rabbinate in charge of issues such as marriage, divorce and burial — an influx of large numbers of non-Jews raises difficult societal questions.

Should non-Jewish immigrants be allowed to undergo Reform or Conservative conversions, for example, or must they go the more demanding Orthodox route?

Indeed, some ask, should they have to convert at all? Or are the responsibilities of Israeli citizenship, such as military service, the price of entry to the Jewish people?

The significant number of non-Jewish immigrants has pushed such issues to the front of the political battlefield.

At the same time, Russian immigration has “forced Israeli society to find practical solutions for problems that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” remarks Eli Kazhdan, executive director of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, Israel’s largest Russian political party.

It also has infused the country with a fresh dose of Zionism at a time when patriotism has fallen prey to cynicism in much of Israeli society.

While most Israelis generally welcome the idea of immigration, opinions differ widely on the implications of the huge Russian immigration for the Jewish state. Recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union now make up nearly one-sixth of the Israeli population.

For the most part, it all can be traced back to the Law of Return, which begs the question of who is a Jew.

Initially adopted in 1950, the Law of Return gave every Jew the right to immigrate to Israel. An amendment in 1970 extended that right to non-Jews who had a Jewish parent or grandparent, their spouses and the spouses of Jews.

Around 250,000 of Israel’s Russian immigrants fall under the “grandfather clause.” In other words, around one- quarter of Israel’s Russian immigrant population is not Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law.

Assuming that half of those 250,000 are women of childbearing age, the figures mean that in coming generations the Jewish state will be producing non-Jews, since halachah does not accept the children of non-Jewish mothers as Jews.

With only religious marriages recognized in Israel, the halachic issue raises certain dilemmas. How, for example, would a young man whose immigrant mother wasn’t Jewish, but who served in the army and lives like any other secular Israeli, marry a girlfriend who is accepted as Jewish?

In Israel, such questions — which threaten to create a kind of “A-list” and “B-list” of halachic status — are a ticking time bomb in a country not lacking in explosive issues.

Certain Israeli leaders, such as Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, and Chief Rabbis Yisrael Meir Lau and Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, want to strike the grandfather clause and limit the Law of Return to halachic Jews.

In July, the Cabinet rejected a proposal to drop the grandfather clause — but the issue might be raised again. Israel cannot continue to bring entire Christian families to Israel, the chief rabbis said, according to Israeli media.

Without immediate changes to the Law of Return, Yishai warned, “By the end of the year 2010 the State of Israel will lose its Jewish identity.”

Others, such as the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sallai Meridor, are equally adamant that the Russian immigration should continue, but say the current conversion process should be changed to make conversions more available and less degrading.

A third stance, taken by Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, holds that the Law of Return shouldn’t be tampered with, but that the time has come for the Jewish Agency to stop actively seeking potential immigrants who fall under the grandfather clause.

“The Jewish Agency sometimes gets into the mind-set that they must have a certain number of immigrants, so they end up scraping the bottom of the barrel,” said Kazhdan, who was born in Russia, moved to the United States as a child and came to Israel as a young adult.

Instead, Kazhdan said, the Jewish Agency should work on infusing potential immigrants with Jewish identity and streamline the conversion bureaucracy. That, he said, would solve more problems than tinkering with the Law of Return.

Yet the search for potential immigrants is a crucial one for Israel, as demographic projections show that — absent significant immigration — Arabs will outnumber Jews between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River within several generations.

Israel needs immigrants, and that’s the Jewish Agency’s job, said Mike Rosenberg, head of the Jewish Agency’s aliyah department.

“We bring them to Israel, give them a home, a passport, a job. Their absorption is very successful,” Rosenberg said. “They didn’t come to Israel to join the Christian or Arab population. The only thing they’re missing is the stamp of the rabbinate, and the rabbinate isn’t open-minded and willing to let them convert.”

Once conversions become part of the absorption process, he said, there won’t be any question of whether Russian immigrants identify or are identified as Israeli Jews.

Consider Natalia Nabitovsky, 21, a student of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University who immigrated from Russia four years ago. She thinks of herself as an Israeli first and a Russian second.

The daughter of a Jewish father and Russian mother, Nabitovsky is converting at the Joint Conversion Institute, the government- and rabbinate-sponsored agency guided by a joint board of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis. The actual conversions are performed according to Orthodox standards.

Several thousand immigrants from the former Soviet Union have passed through the conversion institute, and some 1,200 are waiting to be converted.

“I always knew I was Jewish, but I didn’t know what that meant for me,” Nabitovsky said. “Being Israeli and being Jewish goes together; it’s part of being Israeli.”

In the former Soviet Union, Jewish identity was defined in ethnic and national terms rather than in religious terms, said Stefani Hoffman, director of the Russian research center at Hebrew University.

The assimilation route can make a difference. Immigrants often say that army service and Israeli friends can hasten the integration process.

Like Nabitovsky, Anton Tchernikovsky, 21, from St. Petersburg, attended the Sela high school program in Israel. Even though Tchernikovsky is not halachically Jewish — his mother is not Jewish — he had been involved in Jewish activities in Russia from a young age.

“Judaism was always a part of my life,” said Tchernikovsky, who plans to convert while in the army so that his halachic status won’t create problems for him later.

Israelis expect immigrants to quickly “become Israeli,” whether that means eating falafel and hummus, speaking Hebrew and driving badly.

Many Russian immigrants may indeed eat hummus, but they’d rather read Vesty, the Russian-language daily, than struggle with the Hebrew-language Ma’ariv or Yediot Achronot.

The immigrants’ desire to remain in their own culture can be difficult for native Israelis to accept, Hoffman said.

“Israeli society tends to be slow in terms of its willingness to change,” she said. “As a Jewish state, Israel has a consolidated view of itself. It expects people to drop cultural identities.”

With immigrants often choosing to live in Russian-speaking enclaves in Israel, with Russian-language newspapers, actors, stores and television programs, it’s easy to say that they live in a world apart, said Amos Lahat, director general of the former Soviet Union department at the Jewish Agency.

But just as it took years for Israel to assimilate Sephardi immigrants from the Arab world, it takes time to “make an Israeli out of all the various immigration waves,” Lahat said.

“Israelis worry about demographics, and for them, aliyah is a blessing for the state,” he said. “Immigrants will be Israelis in the next generation. It’s just the politicians and the Orthodox who care about the Jewish issue.”

Israeli society as a whole is composed of children of former immigrants, Nabitovsky pointed out.

“There were waves of immigration, and every immigrant built his own environment,” she said. “He characterized what he saw, offered something of his own and gave it back to society. We’re also doing that.”

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