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.

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