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'Jewish divisions are a strategic threat to Israel

September 4, 2012 12

By JEREMY SHARON

09/04/2012

http://www.jpost.com/JewishWorld/JewishNews/Article.aspx?id=283818

Shorashim says difficulties in proving Jewishness, failure to convert Soviet Israelis of Jewish descent threatens Israel.

Former Mossad director Ephraim Halevy, Tzohar Chairman Rabbi David Stav and Australian property tycoon and Jewish philanthropist Harry Triguboff said on Tuesday that the difficulties faced by many Jewish Israelis to prove their Jewishness combined with the failure to convert Israelis of Jewish descent from the former Soviet Union constitutes a strategic threat to the State of Israel.

Speaking at the Hebrew University campus in Givat Ram, Jerusalem at a conference of Shorashim, a project of the national-religious rabbinical association Tzohar, the public figures called for a sea-change in the attitude of the religious establishment to the issue in order to prevent division within the Jewish people in Israel.

Harry Triguboff, a major donor and of Shorashim, called on the government to urgently engage in the problem.

“Listening to what was said today is very disturbing,” said Triguboff. “Unfortunately, the problem can’t be solved until the rabbinate decides to resolve it.

“This requires a combined effort from the religious and political leadership. But the government needs demand real leadership from the rabbinate in order to preserve the state as we know it.”

Former Mossad director Efraim Halevy, who acts as an adviser to Shorashim, said that “a change in the environment of the senior religious leadership in the country” is urgently needed to deal with the problem.

“There are six million Jews in this country and if there is not a radical change, these six million are going to break up into different sections, with the majority not being considered Jewish by the religious establishment,” Halevy said addressing Triguboff and the Shorashim management team on Tuesday.

“This issue is a strategic threat to the state of Israel which will lose its sense of Jewishness if this problem is not resolved.”

Halevy added that the problem was political as well as religious, since solving the issue requires “the political leadership to be aware of the urgency of the problem.”

The division which is opening up in the Jewish people could undermine the basis of civil society, Halevy asserted, and repeated his mantra that this issue is greater than the Iranian threat.

In November last year, Halevy sparked off a storm when he said that religious radicalization represented a greater threat to the Jewish people than the Iranian nuclear program.

Shorashim was established six years ago to help immigrants in Israel clarify their status as Jews for the purposes of marriage and other life-cycle events on Tuesday.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s and early 1990s, more than 1.1 million people from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel under the law of return, which requires the immigrant to have one Jewish grandparent.

Of those, approximately 330,000 are not considered to be Jewish according to Jewish law, which requires that a person’s mother be Jewish. Because of severe problems with the document record from the former Soviet Union however, the chief rabbinate decided that everyone who immigrated to Israel after 1990, including the 800,000 former residents of the Soviet Union who are registered at the Interior Ministry as Jewish as well as all other Jews from around the world, would have to prove they are Jewish for the purposes of marriage.

Providing such proof can be extremely difficult for former citizens of the Soviet Union however, since the Communist government suppressed religious practice and traditional Jewish documentation such as marriage certificates were therefore not issued.

Shorashim estimates that for the purposes of marriage, there target audience of people who are Jewish and need to prove their status as such is between 150,000 - 230,000 people.

This is based on the estimate that half of the 800,000 halachic Jews from the former Soviet Union are either married or elderly and half of the remainder have the correct documentation. In addition, approximately 10 percent of the 330,000 people not considered halachically Jewish are in all likelihood Jewish and just need to prove so, said Shorashim director Rabbi Shimon Har Shalom.

Finding the requisite documentary evidence and testimony regarding the Jewish status of someone from the former Soviet Union requires a great deal of professional work from the 5 Shorashim investigators, and each case has numerous complications.

The investigators contact relatives wherever they happen to be around the world, search for any available documentation and take testimony from family members, all of which can help them prove the Jewish identity of the individual concerned before the rabbinical court which rules on the case.

Addressing Triguboff, the assembled Shorashim representatives and the media at the event, Tzohar Chairman Rabbi David Tzav said that the rabbinate’s concerns were perfectly legitimate, but that more urgent action was needed to fix the problem and help people prove their Jewish identity.

In addition to the problem of Jews who have trouble proving their Jewishness, the population of Israelis with Jewish roots who are nevertheless not considered Jewish according to Jewish law, is growing, Stav said.

He noted that Shorashim does receive funds from the Prime Minister’s Office but said it was insufficient to deal with the issue and that a change in attitude was required in order to solve the problem.

According to official statistics, approximately 2,000 to 2,500 members of this group convert every year, but the sector has 4,000 babies every year as well who are also not considered Jewish.

Professor Benny Ish-Shalom, Chairman of the Board of the Joint Conversion Institute, estimates that to prevent increasing assimilation in Israel, more than 10,000 Jews or Israelis of Jewish descent need to prove their Jewishness or be converted annually to overcome the problem.

“It is doable, but it requires dramatic change in the halachic perspective of the religious courts which oversee conversion,” Ish-Shalom said.

He stressed that such a change does not involve changing Jewish law, but instead to embrace the “traditional halachic approach which has room to accept such people into the Jewish people.

“If the rabbinical courts demand that these people observe the commandments like Orthodox people, they will never get them in to the family,” he observed. “But since they live among Jews, have family Jewish connections, raise children in the Israeli Jewish education system, mark Jewish holidays and adopt major Jewish customs and practices and conduct their lives like many traditional Israelis, this can be enough from a halachic point of view to accept their conversion.”

During the event, Rabbi Stav pointed out that in 2010, of the 37,000 marriages recorded by the state, 9,300 were civil ceremonies conducted in Cyprus or abroad because the couple’s did not want to deal with the rabbinate, either because one of the partner’s was not Jewish, could not prove their Jewishness or was generally disinclined to negotiate the rabbinate’s bureaucracy.

Accounting for the fact that perhaps 10,000 of the marriages were of religious couples, Stav argued that the figures show that approximately one in every three Israeli couples gets married abroad in a civil ceremony which causes similar problems for their children if they want to marry a Jew.

“Twenty years from now, we will have two nations,” said Stav. “One nation that got married in Cyprus and whose Jewish identity is questioned, and another nation which is considered halachically Jewish.

“This means that in 20 years time, perhaps half of the soldiers in the army won’t be considered Jewish. How will the unquestioned Jews relate to them, how will they relate to the unquestioned Jews. Will there be mutual suspicion, will they be able to be buried alongside each other? And all the while assimilation will simply get worse and worse since the population of people whose Jewish identity is under suspicion is growing and people will intermarry regardless of the rabbinate.

“This is an existential threat to the Jewish state and a national test to keep the Jewish nation one and whole,” Stav concluded.