Israeli Lawmaker Proposes New ‘Nationality’ for Immigrants Not Considered Jewish Enough

MK Ksenia Svetlova wants new categorization for hundreds of thousands of olim, many from the former Soviet Union, who find their current treatment by Israel ‘offensive and insulting’

The line stretching outside the Population, Immigration and Border Authority office in Tel Aviv, 2017
Moti Milrod

To spare indignities to new immigrants whom Israel deems only partly Jewish, a proposed legal amendment would create a new nationality in the state’s population registry: “Eligible Under the Law of Return.”

Under the existing classification system, immigrants who are halakhically Jewish (born to Jewish mothers or converted by Orthodox rabbis sanctioned by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate) are listed as “Jewish” under nationality.

However, immigrants who are not deemed Jewish under religious law are listed according to the country of their birth (i.e., “Russian,” “American”). The same applies to their offspring. As a result, it is not uncommon for children born in Israel to be listed in the population registry as nationals of countries in which they have never stepped foot.

The proposed amendment has been drafted by MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) and Dr. Shuki Friedman, head of the Center for Religion, Nation and State – the Israel Democracy Institute.

File photo: Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova.
\ Daniel Tchetchik

Svetlova said the new “Eligible Under the Law of Return” designation is meant to highlight the connection of new immigrants to the Jewish people, rather than pointing out their otherness.

“Many of the immigrants find this practice of labeling them by another nationality offensive and insulting, because it is not how they self-identify,” she told Haaretz. “They see themselves as Jewish and Israeli.”

Under the Law of Return, individuals with at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse, or individuals who converted to Judaism in an established Jewish community, are allowed to immigrate to Israel and obtain automatic citizenship.

Svetlova said that as soon as the next Knesset session begins in mid-October, she intends to ask other lawmakers to add their signatures to the proposed amendment.

“As I see it, this amendment has a good chance of passing,” she said. “After all, we are not demanding that these people have their nationality listed as ‘Jewish.’ We just want some acknowledgement of their connection to Israel.”

At the same time, she said, she sees it only as a temporary measure until a comprehensive solution is reached that provides equal “national” status to all immigrants to Israel.

An estimated 350,000 Israeli citizens who are defined as eligible under the Law of Return are not halakhically recognized as Jewish.