Academic journal article Sociological Papers

"Strangers in the Homeland:" Social Integration of Non-Jewish Immigrant Women in Israel

Academic journal article Sociological Papers

"Strangers in the Homeland:" Social Integration of Non-Jewish Immigrant Women in Israel

Article excerpt


As part of the recent wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union (FSU), about 330,000 non-Jews came to Israel as spouses of Jews or partly-Jewish offspring of ethnically-mixed families (1) (Cohen and Susser, 2009). An on-going controversy surrounds the host of social issues stemming from the definition of Judaism as state religion and pertaining to the statuses and rights of non-Jewish residents, particularly in marriage, family reunification, and burial. An inherent conflict between civil and religious (Halachic) definitions of Jewish identity caused a paradox situation, whereby thousands of immigrants have been granted citizenship by the Law of Return, but denied some basic civil rights, because the religious establishment does not recognize them as Jews (e.g., if their father, not mother, was Jewish). Until recently, only two partners from the same state-recognized religion (Jews, Muslims and Christians) could legally marry, each in their own religious framework. In September 2010, the new law was passed allowing two non-Jews to marry in the civil court, solving only part of the problem--because most couples consist of a Jew and non-Jew or partial Jew. Many immigrants are frustrated by their inability to bring to Israel their non-Jewish relatives--elderly parents or adult children from previous marriages. If one of the spouses is Jewish and the other is not, they have to be buried in different cemeteries, often located far apart. The additional problems that non-Jewish immigrants may face are tacit discrimination and negative stereotyping commonly found in Israeli public opinion and mass media (Sheleg, 2004; Kenigshtein, 2007).

The purpose of this article is to examine the experiences of non-Jewish women, wives of Jewish husbands, who came to Israel after 1990 under the Law of Return. The goal of the study was to explore these women's experiences of being married to Jews in the FSU before migration, as well as their lives in Israel as non-Jewish citizens. Specifically, we examined these women's perceptions of religious practices, Jewish holidays, and conversion (giyur), as well as their political views and the discourse on citizenship.

Participants and methods

The study is based on the qualitative analysis of 16 semi-structured in-depth interviews with Russian women, recruited via researchers' social networks and further snowballing, mainly from the towns of Central Israel and Haifa area. The informants were aged between 35 and 65 and moved to Israel as part of mixed families, on the average 13 years ago. Fourteen informants were married to Jewish men (plus two were divorced) and had children (two women had four children; all the rest had two, mostly adolescents or young adults). Nine out of 16 informants, especially older ones and those without higher education, worked in unskilled jobs, such as cleaning, elder or childcare, or as sellers in stores. The younger and better educated informants worked as professionals or white-collar workers, for example in the high-tech industry. Eight women came originally from Central Russia - five from Moscow and St.-Petersburg and three from other Russian towns (Kaluga and Ryazan); the rest were from Siberia (3), Ukraine (2), Latvia (1), Belarus (1), and Uzbekistan (1).

The interviews were conducted in Russian and took place at different locations: women's houses, parks, coffee shops, and in Bar-Ilan and Tel-Aviv Universities. All the interviews were recorded with the informants' consent and then transcribed in full. The questions related to the two different periods of their lives: before and after immigration to Israel. The first part of the interview included the women's personal background, the story of their marriage to a Jew, social attitudes towards Jews and mixed marriages, and the encounters with anti-Semitism in the FSU. The second part addressed the informants' current lives: occupation, social integration, children's situation, and general satisfaction with life in Israel. …

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