Alex Rif
Social-Cultural Entrepreneur, Founder of The Cultural Brigade and Israeli-Russian Poet

Nationality (temporarily): Jewish

This week I discovered that Jewish, for me, could be a temporary status. That one day, it could be denied my Israeli-born son or me. I’ve found out that some people have permanent religions and nationalities they are born and buried with, while others who come from the USSR – this status is uncertain. From the moment we were “granted” it at the revelation of Mount Aliyah and to the day we die, we are in peril of someone deciding we are no longer Jewish.

According to Yair Ettinger’s report for Kan this week, at the time of registering their newborns, over 2,200 parents who made aliyah in the 1990s were told by the state that their Judaism was disputed. This happened when the rabbinate or the “Nativ” organization passed new data about them to the Population and Immigration Authority, refuting their status as Jews until proven otherwise. The fact that they have been registered as Jews since the day they came to Israel, up to thirty years ago, matters little. For Russian speakers, the religious and national status of “Jewish” is only valid until the Ministry of Interior decides to turn their lives into an endless nightmare involving lawyers and proof of their Jewishness.

On what grounds is their Judaism being denied? It is for lack of appropriate or original documentation. However, when it comes to demanding original documents, one needs to be acquainted with the history of WWII in USSR countries. In these countries, 1,710 cities and over 70,000 villages were burned to ashes. Two million seven hundred thousand men and women, 93% of Jews who remained in Soviet territories, perished at the hands of the Nazis or their local supporters. Many of those who managed to save themselves lost all property, including, naturally, any papers. After three decades of living in Israel, their chances of procuring documents to prove their Jewish origins are nil. Nor do they have anywhere to search for them. They have no connections in their country of birth and, most likely, no access to witnesses or evidence. How then are they supposed to prove they are Jewish?

Should those who demand that veteran immigrants prove their Judaism be expected to determine their own in the same way? Produce their great-grandmothers’ wedding certificates, photographs of gravestones in destroyed shtetls, or recordings of their grandparents speaking Yiddish? Forget the rabbis, why not have all of Israel undergo the inspection? Let us subject everyone pretending to be Jewish to the same rigorous criteria. After all, the Population Authority does claim that it intends to correct its records, and is this not the most fundamentally reliable way to achieve this?

Now regarding the lack of original documentation. Let us settle this once and for all. Many Jews had papers stating that they are not Jewish in the USSR. For some, this was the only way to enroll in universities and get excepted to workplaces. Some of them survived the Holocaust due only to these papers. You know what? If they came to Israel due to the right of return, served in the IDF, raising their children in Jewish society and community, and contributing to the State of Israel in a variety of ways, then hats off to them! I will fight for that person’s registration as Jewish because they are as Jewish as they come.

It is unthinkable that people should live in fear of getting their Judaism taken away. Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, of blessed memory, said of immigrants from the USSR: “Whoever may come from Russia and declare themselves Jewish, shall be believed.” And yet, while we declare this and have been declaring it for thirty years, we are still unheard.

Judaism is part of us, and we are part of it. We are not willing to continue living under the threat of our nationality and religion being taken away one day for randomly determined reasons. We demand that the Judaism test be forever canceled and that Jewish status be returned to everyone from whom it was taken in recent years under bureaucratic pressure.

There cannot be a situation in which parents are registered as ethnically and denominationally Jewish, while their children are not. Whoever is registered as Jewish at immigration should remain that way for life. And if the current proof of Judaism policy is acceptable to the Knesset members, then the draconian investigation methods should be applied to every Jew requesting services at the Population Authority, such as registering a newborn or a marriage.

Our activist group, Generation 1.5, participated yesterday in the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee on that subject and distributed letters of inquiry to all Knesset members. These letters look like the original laters Russian-speakers receive from the Population Authority. It’s time this stops.

*Thank you, Olga Lampert and Melissa Test, for your help in editing this piece.
This piece was originally published in Ynet.

About the Author
Alex Rif synthesizes storytelling and cultural-hacking with her public policy experience to amplify unheard voices in Israeli society – in particular, Russian-speaking immigrants, women, and Arabs. Founder and CEO of The Cultural Brigade, she helped rebrand Russian-Israeli culture and made the Russian-speaking immigrants feel at home. Alex was recognized by ‘Lady Globes’ as one of the 20 most influential Israeli female activists. She is the author of the award-winning poetry book, ‘Silly Girl of the Regime'.
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