The Chief Rabbinate is adding hundreds of people every year to two blacklists of citizens that will prevent them, their children and their maternal relatives from ever marrying in Israel, newly available data show.
There were 6,787 people on these lists as of May 2017, with the number increasing every year, according to the data obtained by the ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group through a freedom of information order to the Rabbinical Courts Administration.
These growing blacklists have created heartache for citizens who identify as and believe themselves to be Jews, and have generated concern that the Chief Rabbinate and Rabbinical Courts are deepening societal fissures in the country.
The increasing number of citizens being added to these blacklists appears to stem from an increasingly rigid approach by the rabbinate and the Rabbinical Courts as to how to determine a person’s Jewish status, particularly regarding citizens from the former Soviet Union.
The Rabbinical Courts Administration, however, rejects ITIM’s claim that it is being overly rigid in its approach, and argues that when it discovers that a person is not Jewish or might not be Jewish it has a religious and moral obligation to prevent him or her from marrying Jewish citizens.
One official of the Rabbinical Courts also noted that the majority of people ITIM has highlighted who are being added to the blacklists have been determined to be definitively not Jewish, and that only a small minority might actually be Jewish but unable to prove it.
In practical terms, the process begins when a member of the public approaches the rabbinate or religious courts to register for marriage, or sometimes to begin divorce proceedings.
When registering for marriage, citizens, especially those from the former Soviet Union, are frequently referred to the Rabbinical Courts to conduct a Jewish-status clarification process in which investigators examine their documentation and other evidence of their Jewish status.
In the last six years, increasing numbers of people have either been unable to satisfactorily prove their Jewish status to the Rabbinical Courts and are placed on the “Requires Jewish Status Clarification” list, or have been determined outright to be non-Jewish and are placed on the “Prevented from Marrying” list.
If people are on the Prevented from Marrying list, neither they nor their children will ever be able to get married in Israel. If people are put on the Requires Jewish Status Clarification list, it means they were unable to convince the investigator of their Jewishness, and also, in all likelihood, will never be able to marry in Israel.
There has been a 100% increase in the number of citizens on the Requires Clarification list and a 450% surge in the number of people rejected as non-Jews by the Rabbinical Courts from 2011 and 2016, according to the Rabbinical Court figures obtained by ITIM.
Not only are these people put on the blacklist, however, so too are all of their maternal relatives, including children, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles.
Until last December, these relatives would be summarily added to the Requires Clarification list while being informed that they could come to the Rabbinical Court if they so wished to contest the ruling.
In some cases, more than 10 people have been added to the blacklists after a maternal relative’s Jewish clarification ended with a rejection.
What makes the situation even more extraordinary is that some of those who have been added to the list already have been married through the Chief Rabbinate, meaning that state marriage registrars and rabbis in the past have deemed them to be Jews.
ITIM began to receive calls from citizens who were added to these blacklists in 2014 and says the problem has become steadily worse.
The group has now filed a petition to the High Court of Justice to halt the practice of the Rabbinical Courts of initiating investigations into the Jewish status of citizens who have not requested them.
In one recent case dealt with by the organization, four members of one extended family were placed on the rabbinate’s blacklist after a maternal cousin sought to register for marriage but whose proof of Jewish identity was rejected by the Rabbinical Courts investigator.
Three of these family members had previously married in Israel through the Chief Rabbinate, meaning their Jewish status already had been approved by marriage registrars and rabbinate officials.
The cousin who sought to register for marriage presented his original Ukrainian birth certificate, which gave his nationality as Jewish, to the Rabbinical Courts, but the investigator was suspicious of his status and sent the document to be professionally examined to determine whether it was fraudulent. The results showed that the document was an original and genuine Ukrainian birth certificate.
Not satisfied, the investigator sought out the original birth certificate of the man’s grandmother and discovered that it listed her mother as Belorussian and as married to a non-Jewish Belorussian man.
In light of this, the investigator decided to place the man in question on the blacklist, along with his cousin and two aunts, and their various maternal relatives. He took this step, despite the fact that the two aunts and an uncle all had original Soviet- era documentation listing them as Jewish, and despite the fact that it would have been strange for three generations of people to continue to be listed as Jewish if this was not in fact the case.
Nonetheless, from just one case, 12 citizens were put on the rabbinate’s blacklist, banning them from ever marrying in Israel.
ITIM officials argue that there could be numerous reasons why the great-grandmother was listed as Belorussian instead of Jewish, pointing out that Soviet documentation only ever listed one nationality, meaning the great-grandmother could have been both Belorussian and Jewish.
ITIM attorney Elad Caplan points out that it was possible the Soviet clerk registering the great-grandmother when she moved from Belorussia to the Ukraine in the early 20th century may have spoken only with her non-Jewish husband.
Equally possible is that the clerk was bribed to obscure the great-grandmother’s identity, or that the clerk simply wrote down only one of her two national identities since Soviet documentation only allowed for one nationality to be registered.
Caplan also argues that it would be unfathomable as to why the aunts and cousins of the man in question would have been given Jewish nationality status in their original documentation if they were not in fact Jews.
ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber points to the determination made by the central codification of Jewish law, the Shulhan Aruch
, regarding Jewish status as proof that it is the Chief Rabbinate that is deviating from normative Jewish practice in casting aspersions on the identity of thousands of Israeli citizens.
“The Shulhan Aruch
says clearly, ‘All families have a presumption of being kosher and one can marry with them a priori,’ and then explicitly states that anyone who habitually questions the Jewish identity of others is himself suspect,” cites Farber.
Indeed, the Shulhan Aruch
states: “Anyone who always disqualifies others, for example, if he vilifies other families or individuals and says they are illegitimate, we suspect that he is illegitimate. If he says there are slaves, we suspect him of being a slave, for everyone who disqualifies does so on the basis of his own blemish.”
Needless to say, Rabbi Eliyahu Maimon, head of the Personal Status and Jewish Clarification Department of the Rabbinical Courts Administration, sees things differently, starting out by wryly observing that the rabbinical judges of the courts are also familiar with the Shulhan Aruch
’s determinations on these issues.
Most important, he says he cannot ignore facts when they become revealed.
“If there’s someone in front of me who I discover isn’t Jewish, you have to tell him this. It’s not fair and not logical to not tell him he’s not Jewish,” says Maimon.
He also insists that the Rabbinical Courts do not actively search out people who might not be Jews, saying it is only when a person’s relative seeks to register for marriage and problems are discovered with his or her Jewish status that additional inquiries are opened.
Maimon also insists that his department’s investigations are professional, exhaustive and carried out by experts in the field who travel to the relevant countries and make use of national archives to track down and verify Soviet era documentation.
Asked how it is possible that rabbinate officials have in the past approved someone’s Jewish status for marriage while present-day officials revoke that same status, Maimon says the department has “developed new tools” to more thoroughly investigate the historical record.
“We can’t say we’re going to close our eyes and say these tools don’t exist. These tools exist and we need to use them,” says Maimon.
“Jewish law goes from the perspective of the current reality. You need to act within your generation in accordance with your facts. What was done 50 years ago was done fine, and we’re not checking up on them. What they ruled, they ruled.
“When family members become involved because of a relative who had a Jewish clarification investigation and it becomes clear he’s not Jewish, and those others who were determined to be Jewish aren’t Jewish, then there was a mistake! Can we say, ‘Okay, we’re not going to look at the mistake?’”
Nevertheless, ITIM’s Farber insists that the practices of the Rabbinical Courts are endangering the rights of more than a million Israeli citizens who came from the former Soviet Union and now find their Jewish status under severe doubt.