Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Non-Jewish Immigrants Forcing Israel to Choose between Being a "Jewish" State and a Democracy

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Non-Jewish Immigrants Forcing Israel to Choose between Being a "Jewish" State and a Democracy

Article excerpt

Non-Jewish Immigrants Forcing Israel to Choose Between Being a "Jewish" State and a Democracy

The Law of Return -- which permits Jews to emigrate freely to Israel and defines who is eligible for such immigration in the broadest terms, including those who are the grandchildren of a Jew -- must be tightened to prevent an influx of non-Jewish immigrants who will threaten the Jewish nature of the state, says Eli Yishai, leader of the Shas Party.

In December, Shas activists in Beit Shemesh publicly accused immigrants from the former Soviet Union of bringing "diseases" into the country and "flooding Beit Shemesh with abomination." Beit Shemesh Deputy Mayor Moshe Abutul (Shas) went further, raising the possibility of "separate towns for Russian gentiles."

The fact that as many as 50 percent of recent immigrants are not halachically (according to Orthodox Jewish law) Jewish has led Yishai to the view that immigration laws must be tightened. "There's no doubt hundreds of thousands of additional non-Jews will make cooperation between Israelis very difficult," he warned.

Yishai's top priority is the removal of the clause in the Law of Return which affords grandchildren of Jews the right to immigrate. The original law guaranteed Israeli citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world. In 1970, it was amended to include those with Jewish roots and connections: non-Jewish spouses, children and grandchildren of Jews. This was a deliberate reverse mirroring of the Nazi definition of Jewishness. It meant to create a law that would embrace those who might not consider themselves Jewish but might nonetheless face anti-Semitism.

Tens of thousands of non-Jews enter Israel on this basis, Yishai said. The conspicuous increase in incidents of incitement against new immigrants from the former Soviet Union is leading a growing number of Knesset members to believe that the time is ripe to discuss a reform of the Law of Return. Several members of the Knesset said the only way to ensure the longevity of the Jewish people in Israel is by abolishing the section of the law which offers the right of return to the non-Jewish grandchildren of Jews. United Torah Judaism's MK Shmuel Halpert described non-Jewish immigrants as a "fifth column."

Aba Dunner, executive director of communications for the Conference of European Rabbis, warns that if the precarious economic situation in the former Soviet Union should decline, the immigration could become an unstoppable tidal wave: "If they don't change the Law of Return and the economy here goes down the tubes, you're going to have five million goyim sitting in Eretz Yisrael. There's no doubt about it. That's the thing that Israel ought to be very careful about because these Jews will have a lot of goyim in their families -- and boy, are we talking about a lot of goyim -- and they'll all end up in Israel."

Minister Michael Melchior, who is responsible for diaspora affairs, has suggested amending the grandchild clause in the Law of Return to bar immigrants if they come without their Jewish grandparents, and changing the paragraph that pertains to converts to allow only their nuclear family to accompany them.

Under Orthodox Jewish law, only persons with Jewish mothers or converts are considered Jews. Although 85 percent of immigrants in the early part of the decade were halachically Jewish, according to immigration officials, in the past two years, non-Jews have constituted just over 50 percent. Overall, 75 percent of Russian-speaking immigrants of the past decade are halachically Jewish. A Russian immigrant journalist on a press tour in December to Minsk and Vilna organized by the Jewish Agency estimated that 80 percent of participants in Agency-sponsored youth programs in the former Soviet Union are non-Jews.

The demonstration in Beit Shemesh by ultra-Orthodox Jews was sparked, in part, by the proliferation of shops selling pork. Decrying the growing assaults against non-Jewish immigrants, a group of prominent Russian-speaking immigrants, including former Prisoners of Zion like Yosef Begun and Vladimir Slepak, issued a statement accusing "xenophobes and racists" among Russian immigrants of having formed an alliance with religious extremists within Israeli society to defame the non-Jewish immigrants. …

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