After Retracting Initial Data, Israel Reveals: More Than One-third of Recent Immigrants Were ‘Not Jewish’

The revised data show 61% of Russian immigrants arriving since 2012 were classified as not Jewish, compared to fewer than 5% of U.S. immigrants

New immigrants arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport, August 14, 2012.
Tomer Appelbaum

More than one out of three immigrants moving to Israel since 2012 is not considered Jewish by the state, according to figures published on Tuesday by the Interior Ministry’s Population Registry. Among immigrants originating from the former Soviet Union, who account for the majority of immigrants to Israel in recent years, the share was significantly higher.

The Interior Ministry, which does not typically publish such figures, was forced to release them in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Hiddush, an organization that advocates for religious freedom in Israel. But the initial figures, which Hiddush published on Monday, contained glaring errors that were quickly picked up on by organizations active in aliyah.

In an unusual move, the Interior Ministry then retracted the data and announced that they were under revision. (The original data claimed, for example, that 86 percent of the immigrants during this eight-year period were not recognized as Jewish, including 70 percent of those who came from the United States.)

According to the updated figures, 61 percent of immigrants arriving from Russia since 2012 and 66 percent of those coming from Ukraine are not considered Jewish by the state. By contrast, fewer than 5 percent of those moving to Israel from the United States fit this definition. Among immigrants from France – another major source of aliyah during the period in question – under 4 percent were considered not Jewish.

During the period in question, a total of 199,876 immigrants became Israeli citizens under the Law of Return. Among them, 37.5 percent were registered as not Jewish.

To qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return, which governs eligibility for aliyah, an individual must have either been born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism in a recognized Jewish community. Although all such converts are registered as Jewish in the Population Registry, if they were not converted by rabbis approved by the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate, they are prohibited from marrying other Jews in Israel. Therefore, the percentage of immigrants deemed ineligible to marry other Jews in Israel among those who arrived in the country in the last eight years is likely higher than 37.5 percent (although no exact figures were provided by the Interior Ministry).

Under the Law of Return, the spouses, children and grandchildren of Jews are allowed to immigrate to Israel, even if they do not fit the Population Registry’s definition of Jewish. These individuals belong to a category designated as “other” or “no religion” by the Population Registry and Central Bureau of Statistics.

According to estimates published by Prof. Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University, Israel’s leading demographer, a total of 426,700 Israeli citizens, or just under 5 percent of the total population, currently fall into this rather bizarre category. Because only a small percentage of these “others” opt to convert to Judaism, and given their childbearing rate, their numbers have been growing by thousands every year.

Responding to the Population Registry figures, Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM – an organization that advocates for immigrants – said: “The numbers reflect the new reality of Jewish peoplehood:  There are tens of thousands of people who identify as Jews and seek to tie their destiny to the Jewish future and the Jewish state, but do not meet the halakhic definition of Jewish [meaning under traditional Jewish religious law]. The State of Israel and the halakhic community have a great responsibility to find ways to enable these individuals and families to join the halakhic community -- should they seek to. The diversity represented in these numbers is real, and we must create conversion reform in Israel. The alternative is to blind ourselves to the future of the Jewish people and to our present reality.”