Russian influx splits Israel over Jewish identity

Who is a Jew? It is one of the most divisive questions facing the 52-year-old state of Israel. And now the battle lines are being drawn in a fresh attempt to settle it.

Who is a Jew? It is one of the most divisive questions facing the 52-year-old state of Israel. And now the battle lines are being drawn in a fresh attempt to settle it.

The issue is rooted in a massive wave of immigration which has seen the arrival of a million people since 1989, an astonishing number for a country just over a quarter the size of Scotland. Three out of every four of the newcomers are from the former Soviet Union.

Almost a sixth of the 6.1 million population are Russian speakers, whose presence is changing the character of Israel and intensifying tensions between the secular majority and its fundamentalist religious opponents. Indeed, the scale of the Russian influx is now prompting calls for reform of the historic law which allows anyone to immigrate if they have a Jewish grandparent.

According to Orthodox rabbis, the immigrant intake is less and less Jewish by the year. At first, the bulk of them were "halachically" Jewish - born of a Jewish mother. Now nearly two-thirds are not. Many immigrate for no better reason than they want better lives than they can have in the wreckage of the former USSR. They often arrive with no knowledge of Judaism or Israel. Yet the Russian vote has proved capable of determining the outcome of Israeli elections, including Ehud Barak's victory in 1999.

With his eye on an early election, the vulnerable Mr Barak, who has lost his Knesset majority and has yet to complete his plan to bamboozle the Palestinians into a peace deal, this month announced a set of secular reforms, a so-called "secular revolution" intended partly to appease Israel's new immigrants. He wants public transport on the Sabbath, and to introduce a form of civil marriage (currently unavailable in Israel). He is even talking about making Sunday a day off.

But the issue has set him at loggerheads with the cabinet minister Michael Melchior, an Orthodox rabbi, who will next month introduce a Bill to the Knesset designed sharply to slow down the flow of immigrants by reforming the Law of Return. "People come to Israel," said Rabbi Melchior's spokesman, Moni Mordechai. "They get massive aid. Most of them have no connection whatsoever to Judaism, to the Jewish nation, to the Israeli state, or to Israelis. We are going to have an enormous social problem, and we haven't faced it."

The "Russians" - a catch-all phrase that encompasses people from across the former Soviet Union - have been encouraged to immigrate by the Israel authorities, not least because they are fodder in the demographic war against the Arabs. Yet they arrive to find relations with their multi-ethnic compatriots are not easy. The left wing distrusts them because they tend to become politically conservative - for instance, by opposing returning occupied territory in exchange for peace, a tendency some attribute to the fact that most Russians have never experienced all-out war with the Arabs.

Russians complain of being stereotyped as gangsters and prostitutes. Mutual suspicion has helped to create a large, separate Russian subculture, fuelling further distrust. In the towns that stretch along the plains and coast of central Israel, there are entire Russian neighbourhoods. Middle-aged Slavic men sit around the tables in the afternoons drinking warm beer, playing cards, and reading Vesti, one of half a dozen Russian language newspapers. There are Russian video shops, Russian non-kosher butchers (much to the disgust of the local rabbis), and Russian bars.

The Law of Return - the legislation at the core of the looming Knesset battle - allows immigrants entry if they have a Jewish grandparent. It was meant as a counter-measure to Hitler, who sent Jews to the gas chambers on the same basis: one grandparent was enough. Rabbi Melchior wants the law radically changed; Mr Barak does not.

Nor does Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who recently quit as Interior Minister. "The Law of Return is the most important law in the foundation of Israel," he told The Independent. "It expresses the fact that Israel belongs not only to those who live here but to all the Jews in the world."

The issue has several important offshoots. At present, those who are not defined by the Orthodox rabbinate as halachically Jewish - ie, most of the newly arrived Russians - cannot wed in Israel, as there is no recognised civil marriage. Nor can they be buried alongside Jews.

The rabbis control the marriage and divorce courts. Mr Barak plans to introduce civil marriage as part of his "secular revolution". If his plans are implemented, Israel's new Russians can chalk them up as one of their biggest successes. But it is sure to be a nasty fight.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Murray celebrates reaching the final
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Life and Style
tech
News
James Corden’s social media footprint was a factor for CBS
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Sport
Harry Kane celebrates scoring the opening goal for Spurs
footballLive: All the latest transfer news as deadline day looms
Arts and Entertainment
Master of ceremony: Jeremy Paxman
tvReview: Victory for Jeremy Paxman in this absorbing, revealing tale
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Communications Executive

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Ashdown Group: SQL DBA (SSIS, ETL) - London, £60k

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SQL DBA (SSIS, ETL) - Central London, £60,000...

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Recruitment Genius: Service Agent / QA Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an est...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness