Sharansky: Tens of Thousands of Descendants of Forced Converts Want to Immigrate to Israel

Jewish Agency chairman accuses rabbinical authorities of 'arrogance' in treatment of potential immigrants.

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky on Tuesday accused the Israeli rabbinical authorities of “arrogance” in their treatment of potential immigrants.

“I’m talking specifically about the questions of who is a Jew and of conversion,” he said, addressing the annual Ashdod Conference on Immigration and Absorption. “This is not only about the 300,000 Russian immigrants now living in Israel who aren’t halakhically Jewish. As we’ve recently discovered, sometimes the arrogance shown can be startling.”

He was referring specifically to a recent decision taken by the rabbinical authorities to prevent further immigration to Israel by members of the Russian Subbotnik community. The Subbotniks are a Christian group that embraced Judaism several hundred years ago.

“We already have third generation Subbotniks living in Israel, some of them even in the Haredi community, and now they’re being told that their grandparents weren’t Jewish,” Sharansky said.

The definition of a Jew under Israeli law assumes even greater relevancy today, Sharansky said, following recent signs of increased interest in aliyah among descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity hundreds of years ago.

“There are hundreds of thousands of them who want to return to Judaism, and among them, tens of thousands of them who would consider moving to Israel,” he said. “We have to decide now how wide we want to open the gates of the State of Israel and how much effort we want to invest in the continued in-gathering of the exiles.”

He said the rabbinical conversion courts in Israel also had to decide whether to take a more open-minded “Hillel and Rambam” approach to conversion and welcome all those belonging to the “seed of Israel” - the common term for individuals with Jewish ancestry - or alternatively, to turn them away and say “we’re not interested in you.”

On another subject, the Jewish Agency chairman said the best way to encourage greater immigration to Israel was to expand programs that bring young Jews from around the world on trips to the country.

“Programs like Masa, which bring young adults here for 12 months to a year, have proven to be a major success,” he said. “We have 12,000 participants every year in this programs, and among those participants from France and the former Soviet Union, 70 percent end up moving to Israel within a year.”

Moti Milrod