Israeli State Panel Proposes Special Status for 'Jew-ish' non-Jews - Letting Them Stay Longer in Israel

New move to recognize people with Jewish roots, emerging communities and groups of Crypto-Jews, is meant to allow them to explore their Jewish heritage and learn about Israel

Members of the Bnei Menashe in Churachandpur village, India, during an Israeli Independence Day celebration.
Members of the Bnei Menashe in Churachandpur village, India, during an Israeli Independence Day celebration. Natasha Mozgovaya

A government-appointed committee recommends that Israel create a new status for individuals around the world who have Jewish roots or belong to “emerging Jewish communities,” but are not eligible to immigrate to Israel or spend any length of time there.

The new status would allow these individuals to stay in Israel longer than the three months allowed by tourist visas, so they could explore their Jewish heritage and learn about the country, Haaretz has learned.

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This is the key recommendation of the committee appointed by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry to formulate guidelines on how Israel should relate to individuals with a connection to the Jewish people or Judaism, but who do not qualify as Jewish under Israeli law or halakha (Jewish religious law). Millions of people worldwide could potentially benefit from this new status.

The report, whose recommendations were made available to Haaretz in advance of its expected publication in the coming weeks, stops short of recommending changes in the Law of Return, which determines who is eligible to immigrate to Israel. However, if adopted by the government, it could certainly open the way to such amendments.

The Law of Return provides citizenship only to individuals who have at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse, or who have converted to Judaism. Someone with one Jewish great-grandparent, therefore, is not eligible to move to Israel and can only visit the country as a tourist with a limited stay of three months.

If they aren’t fully recognized as Jews, the committee recommends that such individuals should at least benefit from some sort of “in-between” status, which could be conferred through a new visa designation.

The government committee, appointed two years ago, was headed by Ofir Haivry, a historian and political theorist who serves as vice-president of The Herzl Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank. He is also a founder of Jerusalem’s right-leaning Shalem Center. The other committee members are Zvi Hauser, a former cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Rotem Yadlin, a lawyer who served as Hauser’s deputy; journalist Fiamma Nirenstein, a former outspoken Italian lawmaker for Silvio Berlosconi’s right-wing People of Freedom party who Netanyahu tried to appoint as ambassador to Rome; and Dr. Einat Wilf, a former Labor lawmaker, who is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an independent think tank.

The committee found that tens of thousands of individuals in Poland have Jewish roots, even though they don’t qualify for immigration under Israel’s Law of Return. Many are descendants of Jews who were forced to hide their identity during the Holocaust. A similar situation exists, though to a lesser extent, in Hungary.

The category of individuals with Jewish roots also includes Bnei Anusim – descendants of Jews forced to convert during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. In places like Colombia and Sicily, these Crypto-Jewish communities have organized themselves in recent years and are often much larger than the mainstream Jewish communities in their area, committee members found.

The category also includes groups who claim to be descended from the so-called “lost tribes,” such as the Bnei Menashe from northeastern India.

Emerging Jewish communities, also known as “Judaizing communities,” is a term used to refer to groups from remote corners of the world that have recently discovered Judaism and embrace Jewish practices – sometimes converting to Judaism, but often not. They can be found in South America, Africa and as far away as Papua New Guinea.

Under existing Israeli law, only Jews can obtain student visas to study in non-degree-conferring institutes of higher education in the country, which are mainly religious schools or yeshivas. As a result, individuals with Jewish roots or members of emerging Jewish communities cannot study Judaism in Israel outside of the university system. The new preferential status recommended by the committee would solve this problem, too.

The committee also made other key recommendations to the government, including that it formulate criteria that determine, once and for all, which communities with connections to the Jewish people are eligible for immigration.

To date, the report noted, no policy has ever been formulated and only groups that have lobbyists operating on their behalf in Israel – for example, the Ethiopian Falashmura (who were forced to convert to Christianity more than a century ago but still identify as Jews) and the Bnei Menashe – are allowed to immigrate (and undergo conversion upon arrival).

Many other groups are barred from the country, even though they have no less of a connection to the Jewish people and Judaism. That would include the Abayudaya of Uganda – who embraced Judaism at the turn of the last century and were formally converted by a Conservative rabbinical court about 15 years ago – and the Subbotniks, a Christian community that embraced Judaism in Russia more than a century ago.

It also recommended that, through its embassies abroad, the government should look to foster closer ties between the Crypto-Jews and the established Jewish communities.

The committee members found that, in many communities, the established Jewish leadership was hostile to the local Crypto-Jews and considered them a threat. The committee recommended finding ways to bring the Crypto-Jews into the fold, since they tend to be very strong supporters of Israel.

Moreover, the panel called on the government to reach out to leaders of Crypto-Jewish and other organized communities abroad that consider themselves Jewish and offer them the opportunity to study and tour Israel, as a first step in nurturing ties.

The panel also recommended that the government open cultural centers abroad – modeled on the German Goethe-Institut and the British Council – where individuals with Jewish roots and members of emerging Jewish communities could learn more about Judaism and Israel.

Finally, it said Israel should not close its doors to groups that have embraced Judaism but have no proven genetic connection to the Jewish people – such as those who claim descent from the “lost tribes.”

The government should consider recognizing those who have lived together as an organized Jewish community for a minimum number of years, such as 40, it added.