Branded in Israel as ‘Others,’ Many Immigrants Leave for Other Countries

Immigrants who aren’t Jews according to Jewish law are alienated in Israel.

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An illustrative image of immigrants arriving in Israel.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau

Israel has invested heavily in the successful absorption of new immigrants, but new numbers of those leaving cast a pall on the success of this endeavor. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, half of the Israelis who left the country in 2012 for more than a year were immigrants who were not born here. A quarter of those leaving were designated as “others,” a term reserved for immigrants deemed Jewish for obtaining citizenship but not according to Jewish law (halakha).

Yogev Karasenty, an adviser at the Jewish Agency, presented these figures recently at the Knesset against the backdrop of debate on the conversion reform. He believes that the numbers indicate a problem in the process of absorbing these people. “The number of immigrants who came and left is uncomfortably high,” he says. “We’d like to see a much better blending of these immigrants into Israeli society, and we’re convinced that more accessible conversion will change things around.” That’s the new buzz word: “accessible conversion.”

“Conversion is a process of acceptance into Israeli society,” says Karasenty. “It’s tantamount to serving in the army, and the two have been linked together not coincidentally. These two frameworks give an imprimatur of ‘Israeliness,’ without which a person’s sense of belonging is affected.”

In response to the claim that the numbers don’t indicate that conversion problems are at fault, Karasenty says anyone thinking otherwise should offer an alternative explanation for the daunting numbers. “Conversion is part of the story, not all of it, but it’s prominent. When you convert, you become part of the larger group and acquire a sense of belonging. When you’re an outsider it’s easier to leave. The fact that even the CBS labels them as ‘others’ highlights their marginalization.”

Seeking to hear some stories behind the statistics, Haaretz talked to immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have decided to leave Israel, including some of those defined as “others.” Some faced difficulties upon arrival while others felt at home immediately. They all see themselves as Israelis and regard Israel as their home. Those who were considered not Jewish according to halakha said that this was a major component in their sense of not belonging.

“I came here at the age of nine from Moscow, but I’m defined as ‘other,’ like a pig,” says 34-year-old Neta Kunin bitterly. A year ago she followed her partner to Barcelona. “It’s true that non-Jewish Russians leave because they are treated like second-class citizens. You don’t feel it on a daily basis but when you need to be married or buried you can’t do a thing. I didn’t join the army for that reason – why should I serve and then if anything happens you’ll bury me outside the cemetery?”

Kunin says the Jewish issue comes up before marriage does. She told men whom she met that she wasn’t Jewish according to Jewish law. “You meet the most secular man, and as he bites into his lobster he declares that his children have to be Jewish,” she relates cynically. She’s had partners who didn’t tell their parents that she wasn’t Jewish. Her parents and grandparents are pressuring her to convert, but she’s had a traumatic experience with the ordeal. She’s tried three times already. “The first time was with a female rabbinic instructor who tortured us any way she could.“ Kunin says the process involves learning how to tell a kosher egg from a non-kosher one, how to be a woman, to cook, to make dishes kosher, with a little bit of Judaism thrown in.

“I tried again two or three years ago, since I heard a reform had made things easier. It was easier, with men and women together in class, but the lecturer sounded dismissive of our way of life.” What bothered her was that native Israelis don’t have to go through all that to be considered Jewish. “Why should I go through hell, and lie, only to be equal to them? In all these cases women lie to the rabbinical courts. Nobody I know keeps the rules afterwards. The process only produces liars who mock the whole procedure.” She held out longer on her third attempt, but gave up again.

“I believe that someone who’s lived here for 20 years, speaking Hebrew and working for a living, should be able to take a short test in Jewish history and become Jewish – why all this torture and lying?”

After a year in Barcelona, no one asks her if she eats kosher or is Christian. She has no intention of returning. “In Israel there is a daily struggle for survival of people who fight each other, looking for ways to vent their frustration.”

Rabbi Shaul Farber from the Itim NGO, which accompanies immigrants during their conversion process, knows a couple who left after going through it. After a lengthy process they refused to marry when getting their conversion papers, so their conversion fell through. “I don’t think everyone leaves for these reasons, but it is a factor,” he says.

“The problem is not in halakha, but in the people who are running things. One has to find solutions for people who see themselves as Jewish, as belonging to Jewish communities. Some would say, Let them leave, but I want to tell them that Israel belongs to them too.”

Kunin believes it’s easier for immigrants to leave since they’ve immigrated once already, unlike Israelis who are rooted here. “I was born in a country that no longer exists, so my home is Israel.”

Immigrants twice-over

Lena Dagtiar, also 34, who came to Israel at age 12, agrees. “It was easier for me to leave since I wasn’t born there. Like Kunin, she is not considered Jewish by the Rabbinate. She studied biology in Israel and jumped at an offer from Berlin. The Jewish question is part of the public discourse in Israel, which made her feel she didn’t belong. “They constantly discuss it, making you feel not a part of things.”

“I told people I wasn’t Jewish, to put things out in the open, and I even considered converting, but then decided that it wasn’t important.” She was mostly angry that her sister couldn’t get married in Israel. “When I came to Berlin I thought I’d return, but that won’t happen soon. What clinched it was the mentality in Israel – everyone is into your personal affairs with an opinion about your lifestyle. In Berlin you get the feeling that you can be whatever you want to and it’s okay. That’s very special.” The economic situation also played a role, since in Berlin she can make ends meet, unlike in Israel. Nevertheless, she still maintains she feels most at home in Israel.

A., who is Jewish, nevertheless felt like an outsider, like a stigmatized “Russian.” “My children were called names and didn’t want to speak Russian, which annoyed me since we were previously subjected to anti-Semitism in Russia. Here they feel proud of their origins.”

Others interviewed said they left for better business opportunities, noting that they felt at home in Israel and still do. Only in their new countries did they understand what many immigrants in Israel felt, as outsiders.

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