Two countries have been responsible for a growing share of immigration to Israel in recent years: Russia and Ukraine.
Israel invests considerable resources in promoting and facilitating aliyah, and when immigration figures are up, it is widely seen as a measure of success of the Zionist project. Indeed, over the past decade, total aliyah has virtually doubled (from nearly 15,500 in 2008 to nearly 29,500 in 2018) – thanks in no small part to the growing number of new arrivals from these two countries.
There’s just one small detail most of those engaged in the business of aliyah tend to gloss over when raving about this trend: The majority of the immigrants arriving in recent years from Russia and Ukraine (and other members of the former Soviet bloc countries, for that matter) are not Jewish, technically – at least not insofar as the religious authorities in Israel are concerned.
According to Israel’s Law of Return, an individual must have at least one Jewish grandparent, be married to a Jew or have converted in an established Jewish community to be eligible to make aliyah. But to be defined as a Jew by halakha (Jewish religious law), the criteria are much stricter: The individual must have been born to a Jewish mother or converted by an Orthodox rabbi recognized by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. A person does not have to be halakhically Jewish to move to Israel.
Sergio DellaPergola, widely hailed as a leading authority on Jewish demography, estimates that more than half of the immigrants arriving in recent years from former-Soviet bloc countries do not qualify as halakhically Jewish. This was not the case, he says, in the 1990s, during the massive wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, when roughly a million Russian speakers moved to Israel.
“What we are seeing is a very typical pattern in Jewish migration,” says the professor, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Those who are more Jewishly motivated tend to be the first to grasp the opportunity to go to Israel, and these are the people we typically find in the first wave. The second stage is when you get a more diverse group, meaning that the proportion of mixed families among them tends to grow.”
In 2017, Russia and Ukraine together accounted for 49 percent of all immigrants, in 2018 for 57 percent, and in the first half of 2019, for 68 percent. In other words, two out of every three immigrants arriving in Israel this year come from one of the two countries (a little over half come from Russia alone).
The recent spike in immigration from Russia has been attributed to economic difficulties, whereas the exodus from Ukraine is believed to be more connected to political unrest.
According to DellaPergola’s latest calculation (published in the 2018 edition of the American Jewish Year Book), Russia’s “core” Jewish population – the figure refers to individuals who identify as Jews and affiliate with no other religion, broadly overlapping with halakhic Jews – totaled 172,000 in 2018, whereas its Law of Return population (Russian citizens eligible for aliyah) amounted to more than triple that number: 600,000.
Ukraine’s core Jewish population totaled 50,000, whereas its Law of Return population was quadruple that number. If these two countries continue to serve as major sources of aliyah in the coming years, then the current trend is likely to intensify.
According to DellaPergola’s latest estimate (to be published in the forthcoming, 2019 American Jewish Year Book), a total of 426,700 Israeli citizens, or just under 5 percent of the total population, currently fall into the rather bizarre demographic category known as “other” or “no religion” – as they are defined by the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Population Registry. These are individuals eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return but not accepted as Jewish by the country’s religious authorities. As a result, they are denied certain basic rights: First and foremost, they cannot legally marry because all marriages in Israel are handled by the relevant religious authorities; the Rabbinate, which authorizes marriages among Jews, does not recognize them as Jewish. If the so-called “other” happens to be a woman, her children cannot marry in Israel either. In addition, “others” cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries.
Given recent aliyah trends and reproduction rates, this subset of Israel citizens – not exactly Jewish, but not exactly not Jewish either – is expected to reach half a million within a decade or two. They are not happy campers.
“Many of these immigrants lived and identified as Jews in Russia and Ukraine, but of all places, here in their national homeland, they are not accepted,” notes Ksenia Svetlova, a former Knesset member from the center-left Zionist Union and an immigrant from the former Soviet Union herself. “How can they not feel like second-class citizens when they pay their taxes and go to the army like everyone else but are denied basic rights, like the right to get married?”
In the former Soviet Union, ethnicity was determined by the father rather than the mother. As a result, many of these immigrants were in for a rude shock when they landed in Israel and learned that the rules in the Jewish state were completely different.
A paper published last year by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute notes the bitter irony of the predicament faced by these immigrants. “In some cases, they were considered Jews in their countries of origin, and in certain places even suffered from anti-Semitism because their status was determined there by the religion of the father,” write authors Yedidia Stern and Netanel Fisher. “So they were discriminated against abroad because of their Judaism, while here they are discriminated against, or at least not recognized as part of the collective, because of their goyishness. There they were zhids,” they write, using a derogatory Russian-language term for Jews, “and here they are ‘Russians.’”
The solution seems to be simple: Why not just have them convert?
However, as Stern and Fisher demonstrate in their paper, “The Failures of the State Conversion System,” conversion is not a viable option for the overwhelming majority of the immigrants in question. While the “other” population has been growing in recent years at a rate of about 10,000 annually through both immigration and natural reproduction, they write, annually, only about 1,800 members of this group undergo conversion.
“Over the years, only 7 percent – that is, 24,000 – of these immigrants completed the conversion process and were recognized as Jews in Israel,” they note. “Therefore, we need to acknowledge without hesitation that based on these results, the national effort to convert [these immigrants] has failed: It addresses only the margins of this population’s growth, less than 20 percent of the annual increase.”
Some immigrants refuse to convert because they have always considered themselves Jewish, and are insulted that the Israeli authorities would suggest otherwise. This attitude of defiance is especially prevalent among the so-called “Generation 1.5”: Immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came of age in Israel, attended Israeli schools, served in the army, went to university and – unlike their parents – found jobs commensurate with their skills. To those who would dare suggest that they convert, the typical response of these proudly Jewish Israelis is the middle finger.
But for many others, the national conversion system is simply unsuitable. Controlled by the rabbinical authorities, it has grown increasingly rigid over the years. The vast majority of immigrants from former communist countries had little opportunity growing up to practice Judaism, so it makes sense that they would have little connection to the religion. But the national conversion system requires them to commit to leading an Orthodox lifestyle that includes, for example, observing Shabbat, eating kosher food and sending their children to religious schools. As Stern and Fisher note in their paper, many are not willing to take on such a commitment – and, alternately, not willing to live a lie.
“These people see themselves as joining a nation, not necessarily a religion,” they write. “They don’t want to be different from the secular and traditional Jewish majority in Israel, and they don’t understand why they are required to do what is not required of other Jews in Israel. The result, as they see it, is that in order to convert, they must pretend to be something they are not.”
Were they to obtain assurances that once the conversion was granted, they wouldn’t be asked any further questions, some of these immigrants might be willing to invest the time and energy required. But as numerous cases in recent years have shown, there is not necessarily anything final about the process, and conversions can be called into question and even revoked by the rabbinical authorities years after they have been approved. As a result, note Stern and Fisher, even after they have converted, many of the immigrants are perceived as “second-class Jews” or “Jews on condition” – providing even less incentive for others to consider the process.
In its treatment of this population, says DellaPergola, the State of Israel appears to be acting against its own declared interests. “With all these high-profile declarations about Israel being the Jewish nation-state, in theory you’d expect there to be an active movement to transform all the non-Jews into Jews so that the Jewish nation is more dominant and more prominent in this Jewish country,” he says, “but in practice, the Rabbinate is actually obstructing this process.”
It is no coincidence, he adds, that among those emigrating from Israel in recent years, a disproportionately large share belongs to this group. “Many of them find the transition to life in Israel too difficult and hostile, and so they give up,” he says. (Previous estimates have put the share of “others” among Israeli émigrés at one-third – significantly higher than their 4-5 percent share of the overall population.)
Married, but not officially
It was a desire to help solve the problems endemic to this population that prompted a group of prominent, religious-Zionist rabbis to establish Giyur K’Halakha (Conversion According to Jewish Law), a private initiative. Within the Orthodox movement, these rabbis are known to be relatively liberal, and their conversion requirements are considered less stringent. Since its establishment, four years ago, Giyur K’Halakha has been performing several hundred conversions a year, primarily for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
The Chief Rabbinate refuses to convert children of non-Jewish mothers if the mothers have not undergone conversion themselves. But Giyur K’Halakha rabbis do. “That is a major difference between us and the Rabbinate,” says Rabbi Seth Farber, one of the founding members of the initiative, noting that thousands of such children are born every year to mothers classified as “other.”
Although Giyur K’Halakha converts are recognized as Jewish in the Population Registry (rather than as having “no religion”), the Rabbinate does not recognize them and, therefore, will not marry them.
Another organization actively engaged in outreach to this community is Israel Hofsheet (known in English as Be Free Israel), which encourages Israelis to marry outside the auspices of the Rabbinate and provides its own licensed officiators for these weddings. “About 600 couples marry through us every year, and in about one-third of them, at least one of the partners is a Russian speaker,” says Katya Kupchik, the organization’s liaison to the Russian-speaking community.
But not all of these Russian speakers necessarily belong to the “other” category, she says: “Many just don’t want to have any dealings with the Rabbinate.”
In the past, it was common for Israeli couples who wanted to avoid the Rabbinate to travel abroad, typically to nearby Cyprus, to get married. In recent years, growing numbers, among them Russian speakers, are opting to marry in Israel, even if these marriages are not officially recognized.
“What many of these immigrants from the former Soviet Union tell us is that they didn’t bring their kids all the way to Israel in order to have them get married in Cyprus,” relates Kupchik. Needless to say, weddings performed by Israel Hofsheet are not recognized by the Rabbinate either.
With all their good intentions, organizations like Israel Hofsheet and Giyur K’Halakha can only provide partial solutions. So long as the national conversion system maintains its rigid approach, and civil marriage is not an option in Israel, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens will continue to regard themselves – and be regarded by others – as outcasts.
The Jewish Agency, which has long played a dominant role in aliyah, is keenly aware of the “pain and suffering” many Russian-speaking immigrants experience because of their precarious status, says Shivi Greenfield, its deputy director-general for strategy and planning. To this end, he notes, it has supported various initiatives aimed at reforming the national conversion system. But because of opposition from ultra-Orthodox members of the government, none of these has yet borne fruit. “Unfortunately, our mandate is limited,” he laments.
If the grievances of these immigrants and their offspring are left unaddressed, Stern and Fisher warn in their paper, they are bound to take a negative toll on Israeli society as a whole. The “secret” to Israel’s resilience, they write, lies in its success in tapping into “a sense of Jewish brotherhood that transcends controversy.” However, they caution, “the existence of a large not-Jewish group in Israeli society could erode this resilience and dilute the Jewish identity of the state.”
If the conversion problem is not solved, they add, Jewish society in Israel is likely to divide itself into different groups that are unable to marry one another, “creating a historic rift in the Jewish nation that will not necessarily be mendable.”
Another likely effect is growing pressure on the government to separate religion and state. “The oppression of the immigrants and the chipping away at national solidarity by maintaining them as a separate group will pump new winds into the sails of those demanding separation,” write Stern and Fisher.
Considering that their paper was published more than a year ago, these words sound rather prophetic today. In the national election held last month, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, which has traditionally targeted Russian-speaking voters, rode on this wave. Vowing to fight religious coercion in the country – and promote, among other causes, civil marriage in Israel – the party nearly doubled its strength in the September 17 vote. Even if they didn’t vote for Lieberman, many of the “others” clearly supported his agenda, and the results show that many “non-other” Israelis did too.