Inside story'She was murdered because she was Jewish'

The Jewishness of some Hamas victims sparks bitter disputes over their burial

At the rabbinate’s insistence, two non-Jewish Israelis have been buried ‘outside the fence’ despite their families’ wishes, while others fight to cremate their loved ones

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Alina Plahti (Courtesy)
Alina Plahti (Courtesy)

At the Supernova music festival that was still going strong in the early light of October 7, Hamas terrorists murdered Alina Plahti, her boyfriend, Yonatan Eliyahu, another friend, and nearly 260 other partygoers, most of them Jewish Israelis.

Yet three weeks later, 23-year-old Plahti was buried separately from other Jews — a burial known in Judaism as being “outside the fence” — at a cemetery in her home city of Beit She’an.

The reason: Plahti was not Jewish according to the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law, and therefore could not be buried among Jews, according to Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Laseri, the Beit She’an head of the Chief Rabbinate, the arm of government responsible for administering religious services to Jews, including burial.

Plahti’s case prompted indignation when it was discussed at a Knesset committee on Monday, underlining the gradual resurfacing of societal tensions around religion in Israel. Similar issues dominated the public discourse in Israel before the various sparring groups set aside their differences in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 onslaught.

Several lawmakers expressed embarrassment with regard to Plahti’s story, which was mentioned during a session on speeding up the process of converting to Judaism for those aspiring to become Jewish who are serving in the IDF during the war against Hamas.

“Alina was buried outside the fence because she did not finish the conversion process in which she was already engaged,” said Oded Forer, chairman of the Knesset’s Aliyah, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, who represents Yisrael Beytenu, an opposition party with many Russian-speaking voters that regularly opposes what it regards as religious coercion.

MK Oded Forer, chair of the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs Committee, oversees a hearing on Hebrew teacher shortages on January 18, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

“I am ashamed and I apologize for the State of Israel that she was treated this way,” Forer said, referring to her burial on October 30 outside the main area of the New Cemetery of Beit She’an.

Related: MKs blast separate burial for Hamas massacre victim who was converting to Judaism

Elazar Stern, a lawmaker for Yesh Atid, another opposition party that has campaigned against alleged coercion, apologized “in the name of Judaism. This is not our Judaism,” he said.

Knesset Member Elazar Stern speaks during an Interior Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset on February 20, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Plahti’s mother, Olga, said Alina used to “light [Shabbat] candles and separate challah,” she said, naming two Jewish practices. “What I find most difficult is that, in the most difficult time, we were treated poorly,” she said, adding that the local office of the Rabbinate told the family that Alina could not be buried in the main burial space because she was not Jewish.

“I want to tell you that she was murdered because she was Jewish,” Olga, 49, told the committee.

An aerial picture shows the abandoned site, near Kibbutz Re’im in southern Israel, of Hamas terrorists’ murderous rampage against the Supernova music festival, October 10, 2023. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

Disputes over burial

Lesri, the city rabbi of Beit She’an, confirmed to The Times of Israel that his office had determined that Alina Plahti would be buried at a cemetery near the main one for non-Jews.

“With all the sensitivity and empathy that we feel, Alina Plahti was not Jewish,” he said. “She began a conversion process during her army service, but, to the best of our knowledge, dropped out and was not pursuing a conversion process at the time her death. Therefore, according to the procedures of the Chief Rabbinate, she needed to be buried outside the main Jewish burial space.”

Olga said she believed that her daughter had been pursuing a conversion at the time of her death, but she did not know under what framework.

Israeli troops inspect the ravaged site of the weekend massacre of the Supernova desert music festival by Hamas terrorists near Kibbutz Re’im in southern Israel, on October 10, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Olga Plahti is not Jewish, but her husband, Roman Plahti, is. Their son, Ilya, 30, converted to Judaism several years ago. The family made aliyah, or immigrated to Israel, in 2001, from Kaliningrad, Russia.

Their Plahti family situation is not unusual, especially among immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants, 300,000 of whom are Israeli citizens who are not considered Jewish according to the Rabbinate’s interpretation of Jewish law.

The status of that minority has been the subject of much debate in recent months, given growing tensions over religion under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing government he formed with his Likud party together with five religious parties, in January 2023.

Women protest outside the rabbinate in Rehovot, July 1, 2023. (Nevet Kahana)

In the months before the October 7 onslaught, the issue of religion gradually became a central element of a protest movement that started over the coalition’s plans for a judicial reform that would have weakened the judiciary. Laws and bills that appeared to strengthen the Rabbinate provoked multiple protests. Things came to a head in altercations between secular and religious people on Yom Kippur over prayers on public grounds.

Israel’s war against Hamas, which began with the terrorists’ slaughter of some 1,200 people near Gaza, most of them civilians, and the abduction of some 240 others, shifted the national focus away from those internal tensions, but their echoes are slowly returning, even in the handling of some of the dead.

Relatives of some of the victims of the attack in Be’eri, for example, threatened to sue the government unless the bodies of their loved ones were released for cremation, which is legal in Israel, but frowned upon by the Rabbinate. The families’ lawyers did not immediately reply to a query by The Times of Israel on the status of the case.

Members of the tactical unit of the Yamas patrol in Kibbutz Be’eri, near the Israeli-Gaza border, southern Israel, on October 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Moreover, Alina is not the only terror victim who was buried outside the fence, against family wishes.

All four members of the Kapshitter family, murdered by terrorists near Sderot on October 7, were buried outside the Jewish cemetery in Dimona.

The Kapshitter family, Evgeny, Ethan, 5, Dina, and Aline 8. (courtesy)

Dina, Evgeny, Aline (8), and Ethan (5) Kapshitter from Dimona were killed as they tried to return home on October 7. They were buried “outside the fence” because Evgeny was not Jewish. Rather than separate the family, Dina’s parents decided to bury their daughter and grandchildren next to Evgeny, even though the three of them were Jewish, Forer said during the committee discussion.

He urged local rabbis to work with the higher-ups at the Rabbinate in Jerusalem to find ways to prevent such outcomes.

Better alternatives

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weiss, a member of the Chief Rabbinate’s Committee for the Dignity of the Dead, appeared to suggest at the Knesset committee meeting that an alternative solution could have been found for Alina Plahti’s body.

“When cases reach them, they find the ways to solve problems,” Weiss said of the Chief Rabbinate. The case “may have not reached” the chief rabbi of Israel, who heads the Rabbinate, Weiss said. “I will propose to the Rabbinate that they appoint a delegate to avoid such grief.” He continued: “We can do everything through Halacha (Jewish law). So there was a failure in this one area.”

Asked by The Times of Israel whether he had consulted the Chief Rabbinate about Plahti’s burial, Lesri replied: “No, I did not. The procedures and rules are clear.”

Rabbi Ido Pachter. (Liron Moldovan)

Halacha contains provisions that could have allowed for burying Plahti in the main, Jewish section of the cemetery, says Rabbi Ido Pachter, coordinator of religion and state at Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, a relatively moderate religious-Zionist organization.

Great halakhic authorities have issued conflicting edicts on this, ranging from Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi’s permission for mixed burial “to observe peace” to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki’s strict prohibition against it.

Maimonides said that mixed burial is permissible, especially for those who were “killed together,” an edict widely thought to mean people who died fighting together with Jews or because of their affiliation with the Jewish people.

The Mount Herzl military cemetery. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

In 2016, the rabbinate of the Israel Defense Forces, which operates relatively independently of the Chief Rabbinate, ended separate burial for Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers. Their solution to the halakhic issue is maintaining a 2-meter (6.5 feet) gap between new graves, which, according to the rabbinate, circumvents the complication altogether.

Many Israeli Jewish cemeteries suffer from overcrowding as it is, but this “shows that there are all sorts of practical solutions,” Pachter said.

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