Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) on Tuesday published official figures showing that the vast majority of new immigrants from Western nations and over a third of those from former Soviet Union countries were recognized as Jews by Israel’s official rabbinate, contradicting a report earlier this week that claimed just one in seven immigrants over the past eight years were accepted as Jews.
According to figures dated December 23, 2019, a total of 199,876 immigrants came to Israel from 2012 to 2019 on Israel’s Law of Return, which permits Jews and their families to obtain almost automatic citizenship in the Jewish state.
Of those, 123,550 were recognized by the State of Israel as Jews, 75,017 of their family members are not recognized as Jews, and the status of another 1,309 is not settled. That’s a total of 61.8% Jewish, 37.5% non-Jewish.
On Monday, in a report by Hiddush, an organization that advocates for greater religious pluralism in Israel, based on documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, the group claimed that “154,474 immigrants who have moved to Israel in the last eight years under the Law of Return are family members of Jews, but are not themselves recognized as Jews by any religious definition, compared to 25,375 Jewish immigrants over that same time period.” It added that not all of the 25,375 who had arrived as Jews under the law were accepted as such by the state rabbinate.
Asserting that the numbers showed “how urgent Israel’s need to be released from the Chief Rabbinate and religious coercion truly is,” the group accused the Jewish Agency — apparently in its recently released end-of-decade data — of having “chosen to gloss over the true reality of the Jewish people today, reflected in immigration data,” and called on the government to implement civil marriage and divorce.
In response to the new figures released on Tuesday, Hiddush CEO Rabbi Uri Regev said: “The new data were not accompanied by any explanation or apology for misleading us and the public, which was exposed to the information provided to us by the responsible Authority, following the Freedom of Information request submitted by Hiddush. Nor does the information fully respond to what the Authority was required to provide, and Hiddush is further pursuing the obtainment of the entirety of the data,” according to a statement.
“The new information bears no resemblance to the previous data provided to us only recently, and there was no explanation given to the enormous discrepancy. Given the level of detail included in the previous response and the gap between the two, it is difficult to determine the level of credibility that the new data should receive,” he added.
The earlier figures were panned by the Jewish Agency, which said in a statement Monday that it was “disturbed by the news articles this morning reporting erroneous data on the number of Jews making aliyah,” which it said were “harmful and insulting to the hundreds of thousands of Jewish olim [Jewish immigrants to Israel] who are living out the Zionist dream of building their future and their children’s future in Israel.”
“To the best of our knowledge, the source of the information cited in the articles is not reputable and Jewish Agency data presents a different picture altogether.
“As we recently reported, the past decade brought over 255,000 new olim to Israel from 150 countries. Looking at the erroneous information reported about France, for example: In complete opposition to what was reported by this morning, according to Jewish Agency data nearly 97% of olim from France are Jews according to halacha [Jewish law] and just 3% were eligible for aliyah [only] under the Law of Return. The Ministry of Interior was right in clarifying the information reported on the number of Jewish olim.”
And indeed, the figures released Tuesday show that around 95% of immigrants from Western nations are acknowledged as Jews by Israel’s rabbinic authorities: United States 94.4%, France 95.4%, Britain 94.3%, Canada 94.3%.
The figures are dramatically different for the former Soviet Union, but still nowhere near the one-in-seven claimed by the Monday report. The percentage of immigrants from Ukraine recognized as Jews from 2012 to 2019 was 33.3%, from Russia 38%, and from Belarus 34.9%.
The statistics shared by Hiddush claimed that only 4% of Russian immigrants, 8.3% of Ukrainian immigrants, 27% of French immigrants and 30% of American immigrants were recognized as Jewish by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
Last December, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that 2018 was the first year in Israel’s history in which Jewish immigrants to Israel were outnumbered by non-Jewish immigrants.
According to numbers released by the CBS, 17,700 of the 32,600 migrants who moved to Israel in 2018 came under the Law of Return, but were listed as “having no religion.” Such immigrants, hailing largely from the former Soviet Union and Baltic states, have Jewish ancestors, but are ineligible to marry as Jews, for example, under the state-controlled rabbinic court system. In 2017, there were 11,400 such immigrants out of a migratory population of 29,100.
The Law of Return grants near-automatic citizenship to those with at least one Jewish grandparent. But the Chief Rabbinate only recognizes them as Jews under a strict interpretation of halacha, or Jewish law: They must have a Jewish mother or have been converted to Judaism by Orthodox rabbis who are approved by the official state rabbinate.
For the past several years, immigration from the former Soviet Union has again been on the rise, edging France and other Western European nations as the source for the largest number of new immigrants. Russians, many with Jewish roots, are fleeing their country’s economic stagnation, while many Ukrainians have fled from the Russia-backed military conflict convulsing the east of their country. According to Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, more than 30,000 people emigrated from Ukraine between 2014 and October 2018.
JTA contributed to this report.