Fundamentally Freund: Russia's new Jewish refuseniks

The Subbotnik Jews clung to their faith with a tenacity that overcame Czarist oppression, Soviet subjugation and Nazi cruelty.

October 2, 2007 20:57
Fundamentally Freund: Russia's new Jewish refuseniks

michael freund 88. (photo credit: )

Here is a story that is so maddening, so infuriating, and so patently absurd, that it should make your blood boil. For the past four years, thousands of Russian Jews have been prevented from making aliya and reuniting with their loved ones in the Jewish state. Parents and children have been forced to separate because of bureaucratic callousness, and siblings have been divided from one another as a result of government folly. These innocent men, women and children now languish in a state of limbo, fearing the rise of virulent anti-Semitism around them, yet unable to leave for the country of their dreams. Unlike the 1970s, however, it is not Soviet officials who are blocking their path to aliya, but the Israeli government itself that stands in their way, inexplicably slamming the door shut on some 20,000 Subbotnik Jews longing and pleading to return to Zion. The Subbotnik Jews are the new refuseniks of our era, and it is time for Israeli officials to stop placing obstacles in their path, and to bring them home as quickly as possible. THE SUBBOTNIKS' ancestors were Russian peasants who heroically converted to Judaism despite Czarist persecution more than two centuries ago. They referred to themselves as "the Gerim," using the Hebrew word for converts, but historians labeled them "Subbotniks" because of their observance of the Subbot, or Jewish Sabbath. The Subbotnik Jews observed Shabbat and kept kosher, prayed three times daily and donned tefillin (phylacteries). They celebrated all the Jewish holidays, from Yom Kippur to Lag Ba'omer, baked their own matza for Pessah, and even managed in some cases to send their children off to study at the great Lithuanian yeshivot in the 19th century. Subbotnik Jews mingled and married with Russian Ashkenazi Jews in nearby cities such as Voronezh, as well as with Bukharan and other Jews in the Caucasus region. Over the years, the Subbotnik Jews clung to their faith with a stubbornness and tenacity that overcame Czarist oppression, Soviet subjugation and Nazi cruelty, defying their tormentors to remain true to the laws of Moses and Israel. Even after many were exiled to the far reaches of Siberia, they continued to practice Judaism as best they could. BUT FOR the past four years, a cadre of clueless clerks in Israel's bureaucracy has begun casting doubt on their Jewishness, even though Subbotnik Jews have been coming freely on aliya for well over a century. It doesn't seem to matter to them that men such as former IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, former Police Commander Alec Ron, the legendary Josef Trumpeldor and possibly even Ariel Sharon himself were of Subbotnik Jewish descent. Or that when the Iron Curtain fell, thousands of Subbotnik Jews made aliya and settled throughout this country. Nor does it seem to concern our public servants one bit that three months ago, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar called for efforts to be made to bring the Subbotnik Jews home to Israel. In their arrogance, Israel's bureaucrats think they know better than all the great Jewish historians, prominent rabbis and academic ethnographers put together, with the result being that thousands of our fellow Jews are stuck. TAKE, FOR example, Lubov Gonchareva, a 47-year old mother of three from the village of Vysoki in southern Russia. A few years ago, Lubov's parents made aliya and received automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Both were registered as Jews in the Interior Ministry's Population Registry, and the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court even issued a formal ruling confirming Lubov's mother's Jewishness. Nonetheless, when Lubov submitted a request to make aliya three years ago, she was denied permission to do so by the Israeli government on the grounds that her husband is a non-Jew. Lubov, like many of her generation, was the target of Soviet-era assimilationist policies aimed at stripping her of her Subbotnik Jewish identity. Nonetheless, despite her marriage to a non-Jew, Lubov continues to practice Judaism, and raised all of her children to be Jewish. Earlier this year, while visiting relatives in Israel on a tourist visa, Lubov tried again, submitting yet another aliya application to the Interior Ministry. Six months ago, she received a curt letter of rejection in which the ministry acknowledged that while Subbotniks are allowed to make aliya under the Law of Return, they may do so only as long as they married within their "community framework." "Since you married a spouse who is not connected to the Subbotnik community," the ministry admonished Lubov, "and you did not preserve the community framework, your request to make aliya is denied and you have lost your right to make aliya." SPEAKING through a translator, Lubov wept uncontrollably as she showed me the letter and expressed disbelief that the Jewish state would treat her and her family in such a manner. "I was born a Jew, and I live as a Jew, and so does my daughter," she said. "The state recognized my parents as Jews, yet it will not let me and my daughter make aliya, even though we are Jewish. How can they do this?" she asked. Well, Lubov, I'm afraid that the bureaucrats can. And they do, with wanton disregard for the fate of you or your Jewish children. Then there is the case of Ludmilla Ignatenko, whose mother Dina Mevochernikov made aliya several years ago and was also registered as a Jew by the Interior Ministry. In March 2005, Ludmilla and her daughter, both of whom are Jews, went to the Israeli consulate in Moscow and applied for permission to make aliya. Their request was turned down because, Ludmilla was told, "your ex-husband was a non-Jew." Yes, you read that correctly. Her "ex-husband," as in the guy she used to be married to but is no longer, was a gentile. And because of that, Israel's Interior Ministry is preventing Ludmilla and her daughter from making aliya. Repeated attempts to bring about a change in policy have led to naught, so in June of this year, Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, filed a petition with the Supreme Court on behalf of Lubov, Ludmilla and the thousands of other Subbotnik Jews being blocked from making aliya. The Court agreed to hear the case, and I have no doubt that eventually we will win, if only because justice is on our side. The policies of the Interior Ministry and the Liaison Bureau, an arm of the Prime Minister's Office also known as Nativ that oversees aliya in the former Soviet Union, are simply unthinkable and untenable. At a time when Israel is desperate for new immigrants, what sense does it make to keep out some 20,000 Subbotniks who live as Jews and who want to raise their children as Jews? The government's policy concerning the Subbotniks is illegal, immoral and un-Zionist, and it must change. We must bring pressure to bear on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to let the Subbotnik Jews come home. Three decades ago, Jews worldwide took to the streets on behalf of Russian Jewry, demanding "Let My People Go." Now, we must once again speak out on behalf of our Russian Jewish brethren. Only this time, let us turn our cry to the Israeli government, and insist, "Let My People In." The writer serves as chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based group that assists 'lost Jews' seeking to return to the Jewish people.

Related Content

June 17, 2018
June 18, 2018: Speaking in tongues