More than half of new immigrants to Israel in 2018 are not recognized as Jewish under Halachic (Jewish) law and the Orthodox rabbinical establishment that controls religious life in the country.
According to data released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the country's population grew by 173,600 people last year. There was a net surplus of 32,600 new immigrants (deducting émigrés). Only 39% of the immigrants are recognized as Jews, compared to 54% who are classified as “other.” Most were eligible to move to Israel under the Law of return, due to having a Jewish ancestor. The remaining 7% of arrivals were Arab. In comparison, in 2017, 52% of immigrants were recognized as Jewish.
The origins of most of the immigrants were Russia, Ukraine, France and the U.S. Most apparently have some form of Jewish identity and family history, and join the many thousands of Israelis who are registered as “lacking a religion” by the Interior Ministry, for Halachic reasons, but have trouble converting to Judaism within the current system.
Demographic estimates put the number of Israelis within that category at between 300,000 to 400,000, and the number is only increasing due to natural growth and immigration. One of the key implications is that most of the people who find themselves in this situation cannot marry within the confines of the rabbinate as they are not Halachically recognized as Jews and are therefore denied a fundamental right as citizens.
Only in the few instances where both partners are listed as “lacking a religion” are they able to wed in Israel through a civil marriage, in accordance with a 2010 law. But that is contingent, however, on the rabbinate first confirming that both parties are definitely not Jewish.
Creating a demographic problemThe release of the data comes soon after ultra-Orthodox political parties and the Chief Rabbinate shelved the conclusions of the Nissim Committee, and successfully torpedoed a conversions bill that would have revoked the Orthodox establishment’s monopoly on conversions.
In practice the state encourages immigration, but it does not allow the immigrants to settle and legally marry and even makes it difficult them for to convert and normalize their status.
Rabbi Shaul Farber is the director of ITIM, an advocacy group which helps people navigate the religious authorities’ bureaucracy in Israel, and the founder of the private religious court Giyur K’Halacha, a non-governmental, conversion court network. Referring to the statistics, he accused the government of creating a demographic problem “with its own hands” by allowing immigration in accordance with the Law of Return but not allowing many of those immigrants to marry.
“These are people who serve in the IDF, pay taxes and are an inseparable part of the Jewish-Israeli social fabric,” he says. “This policy severely harms the acclimatization of the immigrants, harms their Jewish identity and turns a blind eye to their problems. Giyur K’Halacha provides an ethical solution for them, but there must be a fundamental treatment of the conversion system. This is our Jewish and democratic duty."