Opinion |

Fleeing Russia’s Brutality, Ukrainians Reaching Israel Face a Terrible Surprise

In Israel, a cruel, corrupt religious ordeal awaits thousands of Ukrainian refugees from Russia’s invasion. It will have fateful consequences for their future and for the character of the Jewish state itself

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Ukrainian Jewish refugee Olga Chudnaya from Hostomel sits inside the Agudath Israel synagogue in Moldova's capital Chisinau before heading to the airport to board a plane to Israel
Ukrainian Jewish refugee Olga Chudnaya from Hostomel sits inside the Agudath Israel synagogue in Moldova's capital Chisinau before heading to the airport to board a plane to IsraelCredit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN - AFP
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

The brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia has created both a refugee crisis and an immigration crisis for Israel. In political terms, the refugee crisis is mostly over, but the immigration crisis is just beginning.

The refugee crisis resulted from the despicable policies of Israel’s interior minister, Ayelet Shaked. Thankfully, Israel’s political establishment, disgusted by Shaked’s cruelty to Ukrainian refugees arriving in Israel, forced her to retreat on every point. The cash bond required of arriving refugees was rescinded; the quotas were revised upward; and the appalling conditions that greeted those landing at Ben-Gurion Airport were improved.

The refugees will need to be cared for until their return home is possible. But Israel’s political leaders did what they had to do.

Now the bad news: The immigration crisis that is now beginning will be every bit as serious as the refugee crisis. And the guilty party here, to no one’s surprise, is Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and its massive rabbinical bureaucracy.

The Chief Rabbis pride themselves on preserving Israel’s Jewish character. But in fact, they do exactly the opposite. In their dealing with immigrants, they undermine Israel’s Jewish character, alienate Israeli Jews and potential Jews, and present an ancient and awe-inspiring faith as uncaring and heartless.

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Those who arrive in Israel seeking immigrant status are governed by the Law of Return. If you are Jewish, or have a Jewish parent, grandparent, or spouse, you are considered an immigrant and are entitled to immediate citizenship.

As of ten days ago, approximately 15,000 Ukrainians had arrived in Israel since the war began. Roughly two-thirds of them had no familial Jewish connections, did not meet the requirements of the Law of Return, and are considered refugees. About 5000 did meet those requirements and are considered immigrants.

While 5000 is a relatively modest number, it could rise dramatically if the war worsens. The Jewish Agency for Israel reports that 7000 Ukrainians, waiting to come to Israel and eligible under the Law of Return, are now housed in hotels in Hungary, Romania, and Poland. Experts estimate that a total of 200,000 Ukrainians meet the requirements of the Law of Return, and many will come to Israel in the months ahead.

Zionists everywhere have applauded Israel’s efforts to offer a refuge to Jews in distress. The Chief Rabbis have joined in the chorus, calling on Ukrainians to make aliyah to Israel and promising them a warm welcome.

But rhetoric is one thing and action another. For more than three decades, the Chief Rabbis have done everything possible to make the lives of immigrants miserable, questioning their Judaism at every turn. And this is what they will do to the Ukrainians as well.

Ukrainian refugees show their documents before they board a flight at Iasi International Airport in Romania, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, en route to IsraelCredit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

This will be true even for those who are Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law (halakha). While they will be granted citizenship and registered as Jews on their identity cards, when they go to marry, they will be subjected to an excruciating process called "clarifying Jewish status." No matter how obvious that they are Jewish, they will be asked for pictures of graves, documents, and records that are no longer available from war-torn Ukraine.

And this will be true as well for those immigrants who have a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother and are not Jewish according to halakha. Many, having little Jewish knowledge and considered Jewish in Ukraine, will be shocked to discover that they are not seen as Jewish in Israel.

They will also be surprised to learn that while they are expected to serve in the army, pay taxes, and assume all the burdens of citizenship, their identity cards will say "without religion," and they will be unable to marry in Israel.

And when they ask what is involved in converting to Judaism, they will hear that the demands of the Chief Rabbinate are impossible to meet, requiring Jews who are largely secular to observe a strictly Orthodox lifestyle.

And this will be true too for immigrants with Jewish fathers and grandfathers who did not assume they were Jewish but who thought, arriving in the Jewish state, that they would be offered a reasonable path for joining the Jewish people.

Ukrainian Jewish refugees gather in front of the Agudat Israel synagogue in the Moldovan capital before flying to Israel, with the help of the United Hatzalah of Israel aid groupCredit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP
A sign showing a flag of Israel superimposed with the blue and yellow national colors of Ukraine at a shelter for Ukrainian Jewish refugees in Moldova's capital ChisinauCredit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN - AFP

Many of the immigrants will be so incredulous that they will seek advice from Israelis who arrived in the major waves of immigration from Eastern Europe in the 1990s. What they will mostly hear from these established Israelis is something like this:

"The Chief Rabbinate will harass you if you are Jewish and humiliate you if you are not. Don’t even think about converting. If you do, expectations will be outrageous, and you will be discouraged at every stage of the process. Ignore the Chief Rabbis and integrate into Israeli society without conversion. Most Israelis will be happy to accept you on those terms."

If this sounds like a wild exaggeration, consider the following:

There are 450,000 Israeli citizens "without religion." Almost all immigrated from Russia, Ukraine, and other countries in the FSU, or were born in Israel to FSU parents.

The number of these citizens who convert to Judaism each year is negligible. According to Shuki Friedman of the Jewish People Policy Institute, there are only 1500 conversions per year.

And due to the excessive demands of the Chief Rabbinate’s conversion programs, only 20 percent of those who begin the programs complete them.

Daria Garn a Ukrainian refugee from Kyiv walks off the aircraft as she arrives from Romania after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, at Ben-Gurion Airport in Lod near Tel Aviv, IsraelCredit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Some claim that the Chief Rabbis are simply doing what the Jewish tradition demands. But Reform, Conservative, and significant elements of the Orthodox world see things differently. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, an important authority in Orthodox national-religious circles, recently reviewed the writings of Sephardic rabbis who believe that more lenient conversions are permitted when occurring in a society with a Jewish majority.

He demonstrated that Israel’s first Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Ben-Zion Uziel, allowed converts to be accepted even when it was known that they would not fulfill all the commandments. Yitzhak Yosef, Israel’s current Sephardic Chief Rabbi, responded by calling Melamed a "liar" and a "distorter." But in fact, Yosef is the distorter, refusing to do what the times require and the halakhah permits.

It is important to recognize what is happening.

With the addition of immigrants from Ukraine, there will soon be half a million Israeli citizens "without religion" who came from the FSU. They are a new tribe of Israelis, and a growing one in a small country.

They are not secular Jews but non-Jews with Jewish family ties. Most were prepared to embrace the Jewish religion in some form but were spat upon by a Chief Rabbinate insistent on shaping them into Jews in their own image. And they are bitter and angry, both at the Chief Rabbis and their version of Judaism that promised to embrace them but drove them away instead.

The result? They are patriotic Israelis, who have integrated into Israeli society as soldiers, doctors, and engineers. But bizarrely, despite tying their fate to the people of Israel, they are divided from nearly seven million Jews in their country by an artificial and unnecessary religious gap.

Israel can live with that gap if it must, but who knows what it will mean for the Jewish future of Israel. It is best to close the gap before it becomes a chasm, and many of the immigrants would probably still welcome the opportunity to become Jewish if it were offered in a sane and sensible way.

Ukrainian Jewish refugees board a plane headed to Israel in Kishinev airport in the Moldovan capital after fleeing the war in their countryCredit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

But how is that to be done?

Many feel that the law proposed by Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana is the answer. But they are wrong.

Kahana has drafted a bill that will grant city rabbis the authority to establish local conversion courts that will compete with the special conversion courts operated by the Chief Rabbinate. He believes that city rabbis will be more lenient, more conversions will be generated, and conversion will become more accessible to the public.

But the bill is unlikely to pass, and if it does pass, it won’t work.

It won’t pass because many parties on the right, including those in the coalition, will be swayed by fierce Haredi opposition to the bill. And if it were to become law, Kahana is kidding himself if he believes that conversion numbers would increase. Israel’s Chief Rabbis set the tone for the rabbinic establishment, and very few of the rabbinic rank and file will be willing to challenge them. What is needed is a revolution and not a tweak, which is what Kahana provides. His bill will not provide significant change.

What then is to be done?

Shayna, a Jewish Ukrainian refugee from the Alumim children's home in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, catches bubbles after arriving in IsraelCredit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The best answer, of course, would be to dismantle the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over religious life in Israel. Tragically, the prospects of that happening are very slight.

But second best would be passing a bill allowing for civil marriage.

If Kahana wants real competition in conversion, it will not come from within the sclerotic establishment presided over by the Chief Rabbis. It can only come from Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements, which offer conversion programs that are Jewishly compelling and progressive in spirit, but also demanding and traditionally authentic. Together they already convert hundreds of Israelis a year.

The reason that they do not convert more is that Reform and Conservative converts are not permitted to marry in Israel, and therefore Israelis have little incentive to join the programs. But if their converts could marry legally, demand for the conversions would skyrocket. Then MK Kahana would have the competition that he says he desires, and all immigrants, past and present, would have conversion options that they currently lack.

Too many Israelis—and Jews around the world—look upon Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious monopoly as a quaint anachronism. But it is very dangerous, and the "Who is a Jew" question is not a game.

Another wave of immigrants is arriving on Israel’s shores, and it would be absurd for Israel to continue on its current course. The time will come when the half a million people "without religion" will be beyond the reach of any form of Judaism, and this will be a tragedy for the Jewish people.

In other words, this means that Israel must expedite the conversion process for hundreds of thousands of people. To do this, it means taking on the empowered, entrenched, and corrupt Haredi bureaucracy that maintains the conversion system. It means challenging the clerical politics, fake coalitions and partisan deals that keep the Orthodox monopoly going. It means fighting for the principles of classical Zionism, which said that Jews would no longer be subservient to the sole authority of any rabbinical establishment.

And remember for whom this is being done: Think of the Ukrainian immigrants, of the Jewish choices they are entitled to make, of the Jewish future they are entitled to have. The time to do battle is now.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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