Data shows most recent immigrants from former Soviet Union aren’t considered Jewish

Survey embraced as justification by opponents of Law of Return’s ‘grandchild clause’; critics allege bigotry

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Russian immigrants attend an event marking the 25th anniversary of the major wave of aliya from the former Soviet Union to Israel, at the Jerusalem Convention Center, on December 24, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Russian immigrants attend an event marking the 25th anniversary of the major wave of aliya from the former Soviet Union to Israel, at the Jerusalem Convention Center, on December 24, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A study released by the Knesset’s research office on Wednesday found that nearly three out of every four new immigrants from the former Soviet Union in 2020 were not Jewish according to most interpretations of Jewish law, adding fuel to the fire in the already fierce debate over Israel’s Law of Return immigration policy.

The survey, which was ordered by Knesset member Yoav Ben Tzur of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, was held up as a justification for those who oppose the “grandchild clause” of the Law of Return, which currently grants Israeli citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent so long as they don’t practice another religion.

As part of ongoing coalition negotiations, the religious parties — United Torah Judaism, Shas and Religious Zionism — have demanded the removal of the clause in order to ensure that a far higher larger percentage of new immigrants are considered Jewish — either being born to a Jewish mother or having converted.

The study found that the percentage of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were not Jewish has steadily increased over the years, from 6.8 percent in 1990 to 71.7 percent in 2020. Since 1998, the majority of immigrants from the former Soviet Union have not been Jewish but neither have they officially followed another faith. These immigrants are considered by the state to be of “no religion,” which largely prevents them from marrying in Israel — as the country only recognizes religious marriages — and from being buried in Jewish cemeteries.

The survey does not provide an exact breakdown of how many of these non-Jewish immigrants are the offspring of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers and how many have just one Jewish grandparent.

Despite the struggles faced by those who are listed as being of “no religion,” relatively few of them convert to Judaism — just a few hundred each year for the most part.

At the same time, a recent study found that the overwhelming majority, 94%, of Russian-speaking Israelis — a stand-in for immigrants from the former Soviet Union — considered themselves to be Jewish.

Today, the number of Israelis of “no religion” has grown to roughly half a million.

Proponents of canceling the “grandchild clause” held up the survey as proof of the need to restrict immigration in order to bolster the number of Jews in Israel.

“In recent years, in which Israel has become an economic powerhouse, the ‘grandchild clause’ has brought ‘comfort’ migrants here under the guise of Judaism. That wasn’t the intention of the legislature. It wasn’t the intention of the founders of the Jewish state,” said Likud Knesset member Shlomo Karhi, a long-time supporter of changing the Law of Return.

The right-wing Israel Immigration Policy Center also hailed the release of the report, saying it “proved beyond any doubt that revoking the ‘grandchild clause,’ which presented the legal basis for thousands of people who are eligible under the Law of Return and aren’t Jewish… will be the first mission of national importance for the new government.”

Opponents of the proposal decried the coalition demand and the study as racist and targeted, noting that it looked solely at immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Outgoing Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov, of the Yesh Atid party, who was born in the former Soviet Union, called the reports “misleading” and said “it besmirched a population of a million people, including soldiers, police officers, teachers, engineers, doctors and others.”

Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov arrives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Another Yesh Atid member born in the former Soviet Union, Vladimir Beliak, lashed out at Karhi, calling him “racist.”

“Judaism doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to all of us. You won’t revoke the ‘Law of Return,’ you won’t stop immigration, and you won’t turn hundreds of thousands of Israelis into third-class citizens. True Judaism is embracing and welcoming. We won’t let you destroy it,” Beliak said.

The prospect of canceling the “grandchild clause” of the Law of Return has faced criticism not only in Israel but among international Jewish groups as well.

William Daroff, CEO of the powerful Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, came out against the proposal this week, calling the Law of Return a “bedrock of Zionism.” Daroff is generally loath to criticize the Israeli government or to be seen as interfering in internal politics.

The Jewish Agency has also warned against measures by the incoming government that would alienate world Jewry.

Though it is far from a sure thing that the “grandchild clause” will be revoked, the coalition demand has sparked renewed debate on the topic of “who is a Jew” and how much Jewishness and Israeliness overlap.

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