Israel Court Rules Segregated Burial of Former Soviet Union Jews as Discrimination

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A former Soviet Union Jew designated burial plot in Segula cemetery in the central city of Petah Tikva, today.
A former Soviet Union Jew designated burial plot in Segula cemetery in the central city of Petah Tikva, today. Credit: Hadas Parush
Or Kashti

An Israeli court ruled in favor of a class action against the Jewish religious burial society hevra kadisha branch of the central city of Petah Tikva, which claimed that burying former Soviet Union Jews in segregated burial plots constitutes discrimination against them and their relatives.

"The segregation was done in a patronizing and stereotypical attitude toward former Soviet Union Jews," Judge Yehezkel Keinar of the Lod District Court wrote in his verdict.

“The separation was made due to a patronizing and stereotyping approach toward people from the Soviet Union,” wrote Keinar, who added that there is justification for the sorrow and anger felt by the relatives of the deceased, since the separate burial conveyed the message that, “they aren’t worthy of being buried with the rest of the community of Israel, and that they aren’t like every other Jew.”

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The suit was filed on behalf of the class by Arik Avrukin, whose father, Alexander, died in July 2012 and was buried in a separate section of the Segula Cemetery, and Niki Zinchenko, the granddaughter of Ninel Kisselgoff, who died in May 2016 and was buried in a separate section in the Yarkon Cemetery. The suit was filed through Tel Aviv University Law School’s Class Action Clinic.

This was the burial society’s official policy, implemented only against deceased persons who had come from the former Soviet Union, for at least 12 years (from 2004 to 2016).

It justified the separate sections because of the custom of people from the former Soviet Union “To engrave a picture of the deceased on the gravestone, which violates Jewish law,” which also forbids prayer where there are gravestones with portraits on them.

But the court ruling indicates that even this was only partially implemented. Hearings regarding compensation and who will receive it will be held shortly.

In 2016, the Jewish burial society announced it would change its policy and stop automatically burying former Soviet Union Jews in a distinct plot. According to the new policy, prior to the burial, families of the deceased would be asked if they wish their loved ones will be buried in the distinct plot, where tombstone portraits are allowed, or with the general public. However, the court said that the application of the new policy was only partial.

Hevra kadisha's lawyers claimed that the new policy allows former Soviet Union Jews to preserve their tradition without harming others who were more religiously observant. They also claimed, in an effort to justify the segregation, that other cemeteries have "designated plots for other groups."

According to the burial society, which was represented by Herzog, Fox, Neeman, the policy was aimed at allowing these families to preserve their customs without offending the families of others buried at the cemetery, “Who observed the Torah and commandments and were scrupulous about Jewish law.” Another argument stated that it did not constitute illegal discrimination because other cemeteries also have “Sections dedicated to members of various communities and ethnic groups.” 

Judge Keinar rejected most of the burial society's claims. Until the change in policy in 2016, he said, “There is no dispute that it buried Jews from the Soviet Union in separate, dedicated sections meant solely for them,” and that this was done “automatically, based on the place of birth stated in the funeral arrangement form, without determining what the opinion of the deceased had been before he died, or the position of his relatives on the question of where he should be buried.”

He added that he could not accept the claim that the burial society was trying to allow people from the former Soviet Union to preserve their customs, when the families were never asked what their custom actually was. A survey of both cemeteries by the legal clinic showed that only 10 percent of the headstones in these designated sections had portraits.

"The court acknowledged the harm that was inflicted to thousands of people, the relatives of the deceased, who found that their loved ones were buried in segregated plots and felt humiliated and embarrassed. The graves cannot be displaced, and the families will continually have to face the harsh feelings every time they go to the grave," Hadas Holzstein Tamir from the Class Action Clinic in the Tel Aviv University said in a statement.

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