Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) on Monday rejected claims that the overwhelming majority of new immigrants to Israel are non-Jews.
The information, published earlier in a report by an Israeli group based on documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, asserted that only one out of seven immigrants over the past eight years had moved to Israel as a Jew.
In a statement sent to the press, Hiddush, an organization that advocates for greater religious plurality in Israel, claimed that the data it obtained from PIBA showed 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.
However, shortly after Hebrew news outlets began reporting the data, PIBA warned that it was incorrect, declaring that the numbers were plagued by “inaccuracies” and that they would be re-released following a detailed examination.
Among the statistics shared by Hiddush was the claim that only four percent of Russian immigrants, 8.3% of Ukrainian immigrants, 27% of French immigrants and 30% of American immigrants would be recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate.
Such claims are “totally wrong,” Professor Sergio DellaPergolla, a demographer at Hebrew University, told The Times of Israel. “It doesn’t make much sense or match the Central Bureau of Statistics’ data.”
He said that while there is no doubt that there is a high rate of non-Jewish immigration to Israel, “it does not make any sense that over 70% of those who come from the US and France are not Jews and 96% of those who come from the former Soviet Union are not Jews.”
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 the standards of halacha, or Jewish law: They must have a Jewish mother or have been converted to Judaism under Orthodox authorities approved by the 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.
According to a 2014 report by Vladimir Khanin, the chief scientist of the Israeli Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, the proportion of non-Jews among those arriving from the former Soviet and present-day Baltic states has been increasing for decades. While only between 12% and 20% of immigrants were considered non-Jews when immigration started in earnest following the Cold War, their numbers rose to between 40% and half in the late 1990s. By the first decade of the 2000s, the share of those designated as non-Jewish was between 56% and 60%.
In a statement, the Jewish Agency said 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 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.”
Asked about the government’s rejection of the statistics behind his report, Hiddush CEO Rabbi Uri Regev said that while he was waiting for updated information from the Interior Ministry, whatever new figures it produced would not “change the bottom line that the majority of those making aliyah aren’t Jewish under the Law of Return.”
Regev asserted that there was a “serious credibility issue” when it comes to information provided by public authorities and that he had had no reason to doubt the veracity of the information he had received because he had obtained it through a freedom of information request.
Professor DellaPergola had a different take.
“If the point is to say that there are a lot of immigrants who aren’t Jewish, welcome to the club. This is well known,” he said. “Don’t publish data that is manifestly illogical. Wait and then make your point.”
JTA contributed to this report.