Proposed Legislation Would Confer Jewish 'Nationality' on All Immigrants to Israel

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Immigrants from the former Soviet Union
File photo of immigrants from the former Soviet Union on arrival at Ben-Gurion airport in 1991.Credit: Alpert Nathan/GPO

An Israeli lawmaker is working on legislation that would confer Jewish “nationality” on all immigrants to Israel, thereby providing status as Jews to new immigrants who don’t qualify as Jewish under traditional Jewish religious law, or halakha.

Under existing law, immigrants not recognized as Jewish according to halakha cannot register with the Interior Ministry's population registry as “Jewish” under the category of “nationality,” like most Israelis of Jewish background. Instead, their nationality is listed according to the country of their birth.

The bill, which is being drafted by opposition MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union), would stipulate that any individual deemed eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return can be listed as “Jewish” in the category of “nationality.” Nationality in this context should not be confused with citizenship, as all immigrants are entitled to Israeli citizenship.

The right to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return is broader than the halakhic definition of Jewish identity. Under the Law of Return, an individual must either have one Jewish grandparent, be married to a Jew or have been converted to Judaism by a rabbi (regardless of affiliation) in an established Jewish community. To be recognized as a halakhically Jewish, an individual must either have been born to a Jewish mother or have been converted by an Orthodox rabbi recognized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

Many Jews who are eligible to immigrate to Israel are not halakhically Jewish. An estimated 350,000 immigrants who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the large immigration wave of the 1990s, for example, are not considered Jewish by the religious authorities in Israel, and therefore, cannot marry in the country. Marriage and divorce are under the jurisdiction of the religious authorities, and the Jewish religious authority in this regard is the rabbinate.

The population registry lists the religion and nationality of every citizen in the country. Israelis who are halakhically Jewish have “Jewish” listed as both their religion and nationality. But Israelis who are not halakhically Jewish are typically listed “other” or “no religion” in the category of “religion.” Even if they were born in Israel, their nationality is generally determined by the birthplace of their parents.

“The situation is ridiculous because in many instances, the only identity and nationality these people have is Jewish or Israeli,” said Svetlova, “but they are forced to be listed as nationals of countries that in many cases they have never visited and don’t hold passports from.” A draft of the bill is now being prepared, she said, and will be submitted sometime next week.

Until then, Svetlova said, she hopes to sign other lawmakers onto it, particularly from the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which receives much of its electoral support from immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

In a ruling handed down 30 years ago, the Supreme Court prohibited the Interior Ministry from specifying religious affiliation on Israeli ID cards, the most widespread form of identification in the country. The only reason Israelis would need to produce documents from the population registry showing their religion and nationality is for changes in personal status, such as marriage or divorce.

The impetus for Svetlova's legislation was a Facebook post by a 31-year-old Israeli that became an overnight social media sensation. In the post, Leonid Wainshtein reported how he only discovered this week, 27 years after immigrating to Israel, and after serving four years in the army and another 10 as a medical officer in the reserves, that he has been registered all this time as a Christian of Russian nationality.

Wainshtain's father was Jewish although his mother was not, and he was raised Jewish. He was born in Azerbaijan and never stepped foot in Russia. “So here you have it,” he wrote, "despite the fact that I have never held a Russian passport or Russian citizenship, it turns out I’m Russian. Not Israeli.”

“Therefore, dear country, and those of you who run it,” he continued, “go find someone else to pay your taxes, fight your wars and wish you well in the future. I am done with this country and all the wackos who run it.”

Asked to comment on the case, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry said “Israeli” nationality is not an option on the ministry's registry and, therefore, Jews are registered as being of Jewish nationality, Arabs (Muslims and Christians) as Arab nationals, and others, according to their country of origin. “Without violating his privacy, Leonid Wainshtein was registered when he immigrated to Israel in 1990 as a Russian national, with the knowledge and signature of his parents,” she said.

If Wainshtein has objections to what was written in his documents, she continued, “he is welcome to contact us directly and his claims will be examined.”

Svetlova is not the only Israeli lawmaker hoping to change the registration system. Yoel Razvozov, a member of the opposition Yesh Atid party, has been working on a separate legislative initiative that would also redefine nationality at the population registry. Like Svetlova, he is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM, an organization that assists individuals facing challenges from Israel’s religious bureaucracy, said he is aware of cases other than Wainshtein's in which immigrants have been erroneously registered as Christians.

“This is all part of a bigger problem,” he said. “Rather than embracing immigrants to Israel, especially those from the Soviet Union, we are distancing them. It’s very important that this issue is getting attention now, though I don’t have great hope for change, given the current constitution of the Knesset."

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