The mass Russian immigration to Israel in the 1980s helped put the Jewish state on solid demographic footing. But the nature of Soviet Jewish society brought its own demographic complications. Many Russians who immigrated with their families were not Jews, either according to Jewish law or personal identification.
Under Israel’s Law of Return, any immigrant who has at least one Jewish grandparent or has converted in an existing Jewish community is automatically eligible for citizenship. That is a looser definition of Jewishness than the one used by Israel’s Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate, which requires that a person’s mother be Jewish — in accordance with traditional Jewish law — or the conversion take place under the supervision of an approved rabbi.
Israel’s population registry notes the difference. Immigrants who are Jewish according to the rabbinate’s definition are registered as Jews by nationality. Others eligible under the Law of Return are registered with the nationality of their countries of origin: Russian, American and so on. This is applied to their Israel-born children as well.
Ksenia Svetlova, a Knesset member for the center-left Zionist Union, has a problem with this, noting that many immigrants find the practice offensive, especially when it runs counter to how they self-identify as Jews and Israelis. Svetlova and Shuki Friedman of the Israel Democracy Institute have proposed an amendment to the law. It would create a new nationality called “Eligible Under the Law of Return,” which would cover some 350,000 Israelis who are not Jewish according to the standards of the rabbinate.
She said she sees this as a temporary measure leading to Israel’s government treating all Israeli immigrants equally for purposes of nationality. We agree with the idea of equal treatment for all Israelis. But we find the proposed amendment to be somewhat tone deaf, since it further entrenches the inequality between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens cemented by Israel’s recently-passed Nation-State Law.
The controversial Nation-State Law, with quasi-constitutional status, enshrines the second-class status of Israel’s Arabic-speaking minority. This includes the 130,000-strong Druze community, who are known and respected for their loyalty to the state and service in its military. Most crucially, nowhere in the law do the words “full equality of rights for all its citizens” and “Jewish and democratic state” appear that would set into constitutional language the principles of equality and democracy, and still highlight Israel’s Jewish character.
At the U.N. General Assembly last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to defend Israel’s new law by noting that other nations have official religions or are the nation states of their people. But that argument ignores the fact that Israel draws her citizens from different countries, nationalities, cultures and levels of observance, as well as from the non-Jewish population who choose to be Israelis. None of these people should be second-class citizens.
When the Knesset addresses the status of Russian citizens, it should also focus on the inequality felt by so many others.