Societal Time Bomb In Israel
Time Bomb in Israel
by Rabbi Shmuel Bloom
The Jewish Week
November 21, 2002
Yosef Mendelevich is one of my heroes. The former Jewish refusenik spent 11 years in a Soviet prison as a result of his dream of living in Israel. Despite relentless persecution by his captors, he observed as many Jewish traditions as he could while imprisoned.
When Mr. Mendelevich was released and finally arrived in Israel, he worked tirelessly to bring Judaism to his Jewish former countrymen — and as many as them as possible to Israel.
He would be the last person one would expect to oppose the Jewish Agency’s campaign to foster immigration to Israel from former Soviet lands, and yet that is precisely what he is doing. Why he is doing so should make us all think hard.
Mr. Mendelevich’s stance against Jewish Agency efforts in the former Soviet Union is a result of the agency’s apparent determination to bring as many warm bodies to the Jewish state as possible, to do whatever it can, in his words, "to offset the Arab demographic threat — even at the cost of bringing in non-Jews."
It is indeed uncontested that in a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences, efforts to foster Jewish immigration in recent years have resulted in a large and unprecedented influx of non-Jews to the Jewish state.
The founders of Israel who created the famous Law of Return, which gives every Jew — but also every non-Jew who has or had a Jewish grandparent — the automatic right to Israeli citizenship never imagined that it would be used to entice non-Jews seeking escape from dead-end economies in their native lands to flock to Israel. Nor did they likely ever imagine Jewish Agency ad copy like the following appearing in a Russian newspaper:
"If at least one of your grandparents from your father’s or mother’s side is registered as Jewish, you have the right to immigrate to Israel."
That definition of "Jewish blood" has an interesting history; it intentionally mirrors Nazi notions. Indeed, it is still sometimes argued that "if someone was Jewish enough for Hitler, he should be Jewish enough for Israel." The argument implies that Hitler should be the arbiter of Jewishness for Israel. Some of us, at least, are of a contrary view.
The statistics, in any event, are clear and deeply disturbing. In the first half of 2000, nearly two-thirds of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union were not Jewish even by the government’s own definitions and statistics. Employing traditional halachic criteria, the percentage would likely be even higher. According to Israel’s chief rabbis, fully 70 percent of new immigrants arriving in Israel these days are non-Jews. Crime and missionary activity, moreover, have grown at an alarming rate among non-Jewish immigrants to Israel.
What’s more, while Jewish immigrants tend to be older people, non-Jewish ones are usually of child-bearing age or younger, making the prognosis for Israel’s future as a Jewish state even more dire.
This comes as the rate of growth of the Jewish population in Israel continues to drop. Last year it was only 1.4 percent, compared with a still-less-than-stellar 1.8 percent for the late 1990s.
Amid all the violence and turmoil in Israel these past two years, it is little wonder that the slow and subtle, if all too real, threat to the Jewish state’s Jewish identity has been largely overlooked. But we ignore its beginnings at the peril of Israel’s future, and would do well to consider the possibility that amending the Law of Return may not be as unthinkable as it might at first seem to some.
We are not speaking here of determining who is a Jew. The Israeli rabbinate, not the Law of Return, decides such personal status matters with regard to marriage, divorce and burial, and does so on a case-by-case basis. Nor do we speak of preventing non-Jews from moving to Israel, only about removing a powerful incentive for them to do so.
If the scope of the Law of Return’ grant of automatic citizenship were limited to Jews recognized as Jews by all other Jews, and the Jewish Agency were thus prevented from seeking new citizens from non-Jewish populaces, sincerely motivated non-Jews would still be fully able to apply for citizenship following the normative procedure. But an amended Law of Return would help ease the critical societal challenge to Israel’s Jewish future.
Proposals for such an amendment, unfortunately, have been rejected as politically incorrect. Without a strong endorsement from Jews around the world, they will likely remain on Israel’s back burner, at least until non-Jewish immigration reaches true crisis proportions and Israel’s Jewish identity begins to fade, God forbid, beyond repair.
What should frighten us all is that the day may not be as far off as we think. n
Rabbi Shmuel Bloom is executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America.
Special To The Jewish Week
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