'One Day They Told Me I'm No Longer Jewish'

Interior Ministry decides to revoke Svetlana Zakolodkin's religious status four years after her aliyah.

About a year and a half ago, Svetlana Zakolodkin and her daughter Anastasia were summoned to the Interior Ministry's Population Registrar and told that as far as the state was concerned, they were no longer Jewish.

Clerk Mila Moskowitz confiscated their identity cards and said they would not be getting new ones unless they signed a request to change their status to non-Jewish, they said. She gave them new cards, in which the religion and nationality boxes were left empty.

Moskowitz told them that if they failed to prove they were Jewish, their citizenship would be revoked. Anastasia's university scholarship, which she received as a new immigrant, was canceled. Zakolodkin's nephew, Maxim Sovashkin, a conscript soldier, was also summoned to the ministry. But knowing what awaited him, he didn't go.

Maxim's sister Oxana Sovashkin was kicked out of NAALE, a program sponsored by Israel and the Jewish Agency allowing Jewish teenagers from the Diaspora to graduate from high schools in Israel, and her right to immigrate to Israel was revoked. Sovashkin, until then a potential immigrant in whom the state was prepared to invest a lot of money, became an illegal alien.

This disaster, which has turned the Zakolodkin and Sovashkin families' lives into a nightmare for the past 18 months, was not caused by a court ruling or even by the interior minister's decision. It was caused by the clerk Moskowitz's suspicion that they may not really be Jewish, although Israeli officials had determined in their country of origin that they were eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

Ironically, Zakolodkin says her grandmother's life was saved because her neighbors protected her from the Nazis, changed her name and told people she was not Jewish.

Zakolodkin, 47, lives in Tel Aviv and works as an accounts manager. She immigrated with her daughter in January 2003. The interview at the Interior Ministry was held four years later, in January 2007.

"Moskowitz said that from this moment, you are no longer Jewish. I was in shock," Zakolodkin says.

Their lawyer, Attorney Nicole Maor from the Center for Jewish Pluralism, says that a signature obtained under pressure cannot be considered consent.

Since then, mother and daughter have been living in fear of deportation. "I cannot sleep," Zakolodkin says. "How can they play with people's lives like that?"

The four relatives have been summoned to the Interior Ministry for a joint hearing in June. The hearing could end the kafkaesque story. At worst, however, their case could be passed to the committee for revoking citizenship. Citizen revocation entails deportation and nullification of all a person's rights in Israel, and is therefore much harsher than imprisonment.

Despite this, an unofficial committee affiliated with the Interior Ministry is authorized to make these decisions, rather than a court of law. A person whose citizenship is revoked may appeal afterward to the High Court of Justice, only after the fact.

A bill drafted by MK Gilad Erdan (Likud) and Knesset Interior Committee Chair MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor) stipulates that only a court can revoke citizenship. The bill was being prepared by the Internal Affairs Committee for its second and third reading in the Knesset. But the legislation stalled because Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit objected to renouncing the authority to revoke citizenship.

Unless an agreement is reached with Sheetrit, Erdan and Pines-Paz say they will advance the legislation despite the minister's objection.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad commented, "In general, a request to change the listed religion and nationality is made after it has been proved unequivocally that the initial registration was based on false documents."

Haddad said the ministry does not alter these details without the family members' consent and signature. She dismissed the claims that the change was forced.