In Israel, Many Russians View Conversion Bill With a Shrug

‘There Is Not Much of a Struggle For Civil Rights,’ Says One Expert

Torn Apart? Bat Yam resident Alona Sibuk’s mother and grandparents are pictured above. Sibuk’s grandparents will have to return to Moldova, after their visa expires on August 27.
Courtesy of Alona Sibuk
Torn Apart? Bat Yam resident Alona Sibuk’s mother and grandparents are pictured above. Sibuk’s grandparents will have to return to Moldova, after their visa expires on August 27.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published August 10, 2010, issue of August 20, 2010.

Amid the din of Diaspora and Israeli voices shouting to be heard in July during a heated intercontinental debate over a proposed Knesset bill on Jewish conversion, it was easy to miss the silence of one major stakeholder in the legislation: the non-Jewish immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, on whose behalf the legislation was actually created.

Their absence from the conversion debate is no coincidence, and it stems from two characteristics of this group, Israeli experts say. For the most part, the immigrants are not interested in converting. And despite the discrimination this imposes on their lives as Israeli citizens when it comes to life passages such as marriage and death, there is little appetite for activism among FSU immigrants to bring about changes to their status.

A Question of Identity: Lila Itskov, right, has lived in Israel for 10 years — and refuses to consider conversion.
Courtesy of Lila Itskov
A Question of Identity: Lila Itskov, right, has lived in Israel for 10 years — and refuses to consider conversion.

“There is not much of a struggle for civil rights,” said Larissa Remennick, a Bar-Ilan University sociologist who is originally from Moscow and specializes on the immigrant experience of FSU natives. This is because they retain the “Soviet mentality of not getting into confrontation with the government but finding ways to circumvent problems.”

The contentious legislation was put on a six-month hold in July after a round of increasingly angry exchanges involving Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders in Israel and America, numerous Israeli politicians, Israeli and Diaspora not-for-profits, and Diaspora Jewish leaders who took various stands for and against the bill. But its sponsors have vowed to bring up the bill again if no consensus is reached in the interim to settle the question of how Israel should handle the status of an estimated 313,500 FSU immigrants deemed non-Jews by Israel’s chief rabbinate.

Their status in Israel, with its attendant legal and social disabilities, arises from the peculiarities of Israel’s Law of Return, the crucial immigration law that grants instant citizenship to any Jew who immigrates to Israel. That law, adopted in 1950, defines a Jew, according to traditional religious criteria, as any child of a Jewish mother. It also confers Jewish status for legal purposes on any individual who underwent a valid conversion, whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox, before arriving in Israel.

But the Law of Return also grants citizenship to the spouses of Jewish immigrants and to anyone who has at least one Jewish parent or grandparent — the latter a

criterion influenced by Nazi Germany, which used the same standard in deciding who was liable for discrimination and oppression under Nazi law.

Of these groups, only those who can claim a Jewish mother will be accepted as Jewish by the state sponsored Chief Rabbinate. And the Chief Rabbinate, with its exclusive jurisdiction over marriage, will only register marriages performed in Israel if they are between a man and woman it judges to be Jews. Others seeking such recognition must undergo an exclusively Orthodox conversion in Israel that is approved by the Chief Rabbinate. It is the Rabbinate’s strictness on this matter that has helped generate the crisis the now stalled conversion legislation seeks to address.

The crisis is a relatively recent development. These broader provisions for citizenship had no major application until the start of mass aliyah from the FSU about 20 years ago, which has so far brought in 1 million immigrants. At first, about 10% of FSU olim, or immigrants, were non-Jewish; but today, the figure is estimated at more than 30%.

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When Lila Itskov arrived in Israel 10 years ago, she had no idea that she wasn’t Jewish. The Haifa mother of two was 28 at the time, and had been brought up in the Siberia home of her Jewish paternal grandmother after her mother had died young. She was unaware that under Israeli law, Judaism passes through the maternal line only. Thus, despite her own sense of identity, her grandmother’s status did not pass to her.

“As I was growing up, my identity was that of a Jew, celebrating the festivals, etc., not religiously, but as traditions,” Itskov said. “To feel at 28 that you are a Jew and then still at 28 to feel you don’t know who you are is difficult.”

But Itskov refuses to consider conversion, or to accept that she’s not Jewish. “Under these conditions, if they say I’m a goy and need to start conversion like, say, a Filipino, I’m not prepared to do it,” she said.

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In contrast to Itskov’s insistence that she’s already Jewish, many other FSU immigrants lack any sense of connection to Judaism, which means that conversion is not on their agenda. Many do not profess a Jewish identity, and a small minority — estimated at 2% to 5% — are practicing Christians.

Remennick believes that the demand for conversions does not exceed the fewer than 2,000 applications now being processed by the Israeli Conversion Authority, a body set up in 2008 — the latest of several such efforts — to ease the conversion process for FSU olim (albeit with mixed success). Another expert, Eliezer Leshem, a former Hebrew University professor who is now professor emeritus at Ariel University Center of Samaria, said that interest in conversion is “marginal” and, in terms of numbers, amounts to “nothing.”

Some believe that making conversion more accessible and easing the religious requirements could spark interest among those who are not currently considering it. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a leading Modern Orthodox rabbi, speaks hopefully of a “snowball effect.” Cherlow, who is a founder of Tzohar, a powerful alliance of moderate religious-Zionist rabbis, is perhaps the most optimistic proponent of widespread conversion. He speculated that under attractive conditions, one-half to two-thirds of non-Jewish olim may convert. But Remennick estimates the ceiling as one-third.

Leshem said that in terms of their daily lives, there is little incentive for non-Jewish olim to convert. According to his research among FSU olim, “There is almost no difference between the integration of those not classed as Jews and those that are Jewish — if we are talking about economic status, social relations in their neighborhoods and relationship to the state.”

But there is undoubted irritation about what their non-Jewish status means when it comes to certain crucial life passages. Itskov was incredulous when asked if her wedding day back in 2006 was a perfect occasion. “How can it be fun?” she said. There was no family, no friends; there was nothing — just a registration.”

For those who are single, the main challenge of their status is that there is no way of getting married in Israel. They are caught in a marriage trap. Israel has never changed the state of affairs it inherited from the British Mandate and the Ottoman Empire before then, according to which the religious authorities of Israel’s major religions — Orthodox Judaism, Islam, Christianity and the Druse religion — share a monopoly over marriage, with each having the exclusive power to issue marriage licenses to members of their respective communities. This is the cause of Itskov’s disappointment with her wedding day: She had to travel to Cyprus for a civil marriage.

Itskov wants people like her to be able to marry in Israel — and she wants to help make it happen. She has chosen to work for an organization that in the past has been the most vocal in lobbying for this cause, The Association for the Protection of Mixed Families Rights, as coordinator of its Haifa branch. But she is the exception and not the rule.

Itskov’s boss, Ludmilla Oigenblick, said that the organization has moved away from lobbying, because FSU olim simply aren’t motivated to fight for causes relating to their status. “They are interested but very passive,” she said. “It’s not the culture of Russian people to go to meetings and run campaigns.”

In 2000, Oigenblick helped to establish a Forum for Civil Marriage, but it folded in 2007, due to lack of support.

Last year, the Yisrael Beiteinu party promised its largely Russian electorate that it would fix the marriage problem within a year after it joined the government coalition, which occurred in March 2009. But as things currently stand, the cause of civil marriage has made little prog- ress. This past March, as the clock ticked on Yisrael Beiteinu’s promise, the party managed to pass a law instituting civil unions — but only for those rare cases in which both partners are non-Jews and caught in the marriage trap.

While issues stemming from the lack of civil marriage tend to grab headlines, married non-Jewish FSU olim can face challenges of their own.

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The family of Bat Yam resident Alona Sibuk, 32, is in the throes of a crisis. On August 27, her grandparents’ yearlong visa to stay in Israel will expire, and they will have to return home to Moldova. The grandparents, both in their 80s, are the parents of Sibuk’s mother, Lelach Dasavnik, who immigrated with her father but does not have any Jewish lineage.

The Law of Return offers naturalized citizenship to people like her mother — spouses of those who can claim automatic citizenship on the basis of having at least one Jewish grandparent. But those privileges don’t stretch to the parents of these naturalized people, who don’t have any automatic citizenship rights.

“They aren’t able to cope at home,” Sibuk said of her grandparents. “There is no water in their building — the tap is outside. And the toilet isn’t inside, it’s outside.” If a request submitted to the Interior Ministry for an arrangement whereby the grandparents can stay does not yield results, Dasavnik will return to Moldova with them “and be there until they die” — leaving her husband, two children and six grandchildren in Israel.

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Under Israeli law, when the parent of an immigrant is alone in his or her country of origin and has only the child in Israel to turn to, the parent can enter the country on a temporary visa and apply for permanent residency and eventual citizenship. But Sibuk’s grandparents are married, as are those of many other immigrants facing similar dilemmas. Oigenblick believes it is “high time” for a change in this area of Israeli law, as “people who came under the Law of Return have a right to bring their parents.” As to whether efforts to institute a change will receive the support of her constituency, she is unsure.

The death of non-Jewish olim presents a unique problem. In Israel, burial is paid for and organized by the state. As with marriage, rabbis, priests and imams are in charge. While military cemeteries have sections for non-Jews who fell in action, most public Jewish cemeteries take only people who were Jewish.

There are 15 exceptions —Orthodox-run cemeteries with sections where hevra kadishas, or Jewish burial societies, bury non-Jews. But the downside is that these sections are for non-Jews only. If somebody interned there has a Jewish spouse, he or she cannot be buried in an adjacent plot.

Those who want a civil cemetery where mixed-faith couples can have adjacent plots are limited to three cemeteries — one in the north of Israel, one in the center and one in the south. Families complain that transporting mourners to faraway cemeteries is costly and burdensome, and visiting the graves of their loved ones is difficult if they are interned far away. Some non-Jewish olim opt for the growing market for private burials on kibbutzim, where anybody is accepted and the cost is about $6,500.

But on the issue of death, even more than the issue of marriage, non-Jewish olim are unlikely to campaign for change. “People, especially former Soviets, are big in denial when it comes to death,” Remennick said. “People do not make preparations and do not discuss it, and only think about it when it happens. There is not much death planning in this community.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com



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