The strong influx of Russian immigrants since the 1990s has greatly complicated religious demographics in Israel, since many of them cannot be technically considered as Jews from a religious perspective, writes Jesuit researcher David Neuhaus in a detailed analysis published in the Jerusalem-based journal Proche-Orient Chrétien (No. 1, 2008).
According to 2006 religious statistics (which do not include foreign workers), there were about 5.4 million Jews, nearly 1.2 million Muslims, 149,000 Christians and 117,500 Druzes in Israel. In addition, more than 280,000 people are not categorized according to religion. Moreover, nearly 30,000 Christians are “non-Arabs.”
Before 1995 Israelis were divided between “Jews” and “non-Jews,” the latter group being nearly all Arabs. But the picture has become more complex. Most of the people in the “other” category come from the former Soviet Union (FSU) and identify themselves as Jews, although they are not listed as such. This means that a group of “non-Jewish Jews” has developed, enjoying some of the privileges of the Jewish population (e.g. the right to immigrate to Israel).
And this raises crucial question about Jewish identity: should a state in which most citizens are secular respect the religious definition according to which a Jew either is born of a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism according to Jewish religious law? Massive immigration from FSU has made this issue particularly sensitive. Eager to receive new immigrants to counterbalance Arab demographic growth, Jewish organizations helping immigrants paid little attention to their genealogy, as long as they identified themselves as Jews.
But the definition of “Jew” in the FSU was not the same as in Israel, since it was connected to an idea of nationality: people having a Jewish father only would also be considered as Jews, and would actually define themselves as Jews. Also, many Jews had intermarried. With the uncertainties of the post-communist period, emigration to other places looked like an attractive option. Jewish religious authorities in Israel were not inclined to the same laxity as immigration authorities.
This created many problems: for instance, people defining themselves as Jews were denied burial in Jewish cemeteries. Some are Christian believers, but their number is difficult to assess, since they tend to hide out of fear of compromising their Israeli citizenship. Beside those who are Russian Orthodox, there has been a significant growth of Messianic Jewish communities as a result of immigration from the FSU, due both to their warm atmosphere and to the social support provided in such communities.
Anyway, there is no doubt that a majority of non-Jewish people among the immigrants are not Christians, meaning that they do not fit into any of the social religious categories used in the State of Israel. One of the options would be conversions. The Institute of Jewish Studies has been working since 1999 in order to train people for conversion. According to its director, it focuses on those of the immigrant population of childbearing age.
The hope is that a majority of young immigrants will be converted within a decade. A hurdle is the strictness of Orthodox religious courts (the only ones able to convert people with legal effect in Israel); so far, they have only accepted a minority among the candidates sent by the institute. The Israeli armed forces have also organized their own conversion procedures under the military rabbinate. The debate on the integration of “non-Jewish Jews” from the FSU is again raising the issue of whether only conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis should be officially recognized.
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