Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
(photo credit: KNESSET SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
At a discussion on Tuesday in the Knesset’s Aliya and Absorption Committee, the founder of the religious rights group ITIM, Rabbi Shaul Faber, accused the state of turning aliya into a political game. The discussion focused on preparedness for aliya in the 21st century and strengthening the connection of Diaspora Jews with Israel.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein initiated the discussion to mark Unity Day, which was held on June 7. Unity Day commemorates the three teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered in June 2014: Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel.
The commemoration was an initiative of the boys’ families, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Gesher, an organization dedicated to Jewish identity and unity.
Faber said that while Israel did a lot to facilitate aliya from the former Soviet Union “to get the numbers up,” the state then “gave them a slap in the face, telling them they are not Jews and need to prove their Judaism and convert.”
“This is all part of political game and the politicians do not have long-term vision,” he said, saying that the issue of unrecognized conversions “will burn our ties with the US.”
Faber referred to a bill being advanced by haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political parties that would revoke the state’s recognition of citizenship rights for those who underwent private Orthodox conversions. It would also deny them from being registered as Jewish with the Interior Ministry, as it would for those undergoing Reform and Conservative conversions.
The legislation has outraged progressive Jewish movements in Israel as well as Orthodox conversion activists, and could cause a further deterioration of the state’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry.
Faber’s Jerusalem-based organization helps people navigate Jewish religious bureaucracy in Israel.
“Hundreds of thousands of youth have come here in MASA and Taglit [Birthright] frameworks,” he continued. “If those same youths want to move here, they will get a slap in the face. And if they manage to move here, they will hear from the state that they are not Jews. We need to start to work here, not just there. We can start with the rabbinate, which has to say that we were founded in order to be part of the Jewish nation, not just to serve one arm.”
Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption Prof. Zeev Hanin detailed the potential for immigration in the next two decades. He said that of one million Jews in Western Europe, there is a potential for 300,000 olim, or immigrants. Of some 750,000 Jews in Eastern Europe, there are 50,000 potential olim. From the 5.6 million Jews in the US and 300,000 in Canada, he said, there is potential for as many as 100,000 immigrants.
Former MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem spoke of some 10 to 30 million bnei anusim in Latin America – descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. He said a connection to those groups could “change the face of Judaism and the State of Israel.”
Yelena Eisenstein, a senior coordinator in the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, added that the ministry knows of one million bnei anusim that want to come to Israel.
In addition, she said the ministry’s research has found that there are 50 million bnei anusim who have a connection to the Jewish people.
Committee chairman Avraham Neguise responded by saying he was having difficulty bringing over the remaining 9,000 Jews in Ethiopia waiting to make aliya, let alone one million. The government has approved the aliya of those 9,000 potential immigrants, yet the implementation of that decision has been extremely slow.
Many Ethiopian Jews have been waiting for as long as 20 years to leave Ethiopia and the slow pace of the process has drawn accusations of discrimination.
“Our strength is in our unity,” Neguise said at the end of the session. “The Diaspora is the Jewish people’s greatest asset and the state must continue to act to strengthen ties with Diaspora communities,” he said, stressing that the State of Israel is the home of every Jew no matter where they live.