In 2018, for the first time ever, the majority of immigrants to Israel were not Jewish. One rabbi, an expert in the relevant Torah laws, argues that by mishandling this growing dilemma, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is creating a new nation of Amalek within our midst.
Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that 33,000 immigrants came to Israel last year under the Law of Return. Of those, 12,600 new Israelis were Jewish and 17,700 were not. In comparison, in 2017, 52% of immigrants were recognized as Jewish. The Jewish Agency reported that of the 33,000 total, 17,000 immigrants came to Israel from Russia and Ukraine in 2018.
New immigrants, Jewish and those not technically considered as Jews, obtain citizenship through the Law of Return. Passed in 1950, the law gives Jews the right to come and live in Israel and gain full Israeli citizenship. At the time, the Knesset lawmakers could not come to a consensus about what constitutes Jewish identity. In 1970, the right of entry and settlement was extended to people with one Jewish grandparent and a person who is married to a Jew, whether or not he or she is considered Jewish under Orthodox interpretations of Halacha (Torah law as established by the rabbis).
Some lawmakers suggested that anyone who was granted citizenship should also be granted Jewish status but this conflicted with Orthodox Judaism. Halacha states that Jewish status is determined matrilineally, i.e. a Jew is someone born to a Jewish mother or someone who converts to Judaism under rabbinic supervision. As a result, a person may have Jewish ancestors, even a majority of Jewish ancestors, and not be considered Jewish by Halachic standards. As this applies to immigration to Israel, people who have Jewish ancestors on their father’s side are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return despite not being Halachically Jewish.
This phenomenon of non-Jewish Israeli citizens is quickly growing. There are currently about 400,000 Israeli citizens, mostly immigrants from Russia and the former Soviet Union, who are not Halachically Jewish. In 2014, a study by Prof. Ze’ev Khanin, the chief scientist of the Aliyah and Integration Ministry and senior lecturer in political studies at Bar-Ilan University, showed that approximately half of the immigrants coming to Israel from the states of the former Soviet Union aged 30 and above were not Jewish, along with 75 percent of younger immigrants from that region.
Currently, the issue of Jewish identity and conversion for the issue of immigration has been determined exclusively by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel under the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs. These questions of Jewish identity and conversions have been politicized and are often the source of conflict between the religious political parties and secular ones. It also leads this growing segment of the population to have animosity toward the Torah world since marriage in Israel is under the purview of the religious authorities and these immigrants are ineligible for Jewish marriage by the Israeli Rabbinate.
Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a former member of the Knesset and author of the book Zera Yisrael (Seed of Israel), described the Chief Rabbinate’s handling of the immigration situation as “a catastrophe.”
“The prophets promised that there would be an ingathering of exiles, what is referred to in Hebrew as Nidchei Yisrael (those prevented from returning to Israel),” Rabbi Amsalem said to Breaking Israel News. “As a natural consequence of 2,000 years of exile, there are millions of people that come from the seed of Israel. A large portion of them are coming to Israel under the Law of Return.”
“If someone does not fit the strict requirements of Jewish Identity, instead of welcoming them back into the congregation of Israel, the government and the Chief Rabbinate push them away. Of course, if they want to be conferred with the status of a Jew in the religion, they need to convert to Judaism. We see this in the Bible.
“By pushing these people away, these descendants of Jews, we cause them to hate Judaism and the Torah. We are generating assimilation inside of Israel to a greater degree than it currently exists in the exile. And the next generation will remain not Jewish and even hate the Torah, God forbid.”
Rabbi Amsalem pointed out that in Russia, religion is determined according to the father.
“These people self-identified as Jewish,” Rabbi Amsalem said. “The anti-Semites in their countries identified them as Jewish. They come here as Jews, serve in the army, and build up the country. It is a catastrophe that the Chief Rabbinate rejects them and alienates them.”
The rabbi cited the case of Timna, the sister of Lotan, one of Esau’s chiefs. According to Midrash (homiletic teachings), she wanted to convert and approached all of the forefathers. After they rejected her, she went and became the concubine of Eliphaz declaring, “Better for me to be a handmaiden to this nation [Israel], and not a noblewoman of that nation [the chiefs of Esau].” The Midrash notes that Timna’s willingness to exchange her status of noblewoman for that of concubine attests to her pure intent to convert but the patriarchs did not understand this. Instead of rejecting her, they should have drawn her into Judaism. The Jews paid for this mistake as Timna and Eliphaz produced Amalek, the eternal enemy of Israel.
“It is written in the Midrash that anyone who comes to be a Jew and you push him away, will end up being a hater of Israel,” Rabbi Amsalem said. “Why does Amalek hate Israel so much? Because his matriarch wanted to join the congregation of Israel and she was rejected.”
“Now, in our generation, we have 400,000 people who were beaten and abused in Russia, called ‘filthy Jew,’ and here we are rejecting them,” Rabbi Amsalem said. “The rabbis are creating a nation of Amalek inside Israel through their narrow-mindedness.”
The rabbi emphasized that accepting these people into Judaism is the primary purpose of Israel and the rabbis.
“Israel was founded as a home and refuge for all the children of Israel,” Rabbi Amsalem said. “By placing obstacles in the way of this happening, the government and the Chief Rabbinate are reneging on their mission.”
Rabbi Amsalem has studied the laws of conversion and Jewish identity for many years and suggested a solution to this crisis.
“It is possible to convert the majority of the immigrants according to Jewish law,” Rabbi Amsalem said. “The details are quite complex, but the Orthodox authorities need to interpret the Halachic sources with leniencies where possible in order to save the seed of Israel that is returning from the Exile. It is a mitzvah to bring these people closer, to return them home. By refusing to rely on the more lenient sources in the case of someone who has Jewish roots, the Chief Rabbinate and the other Orthodox rabbis are causing these people to sin.”