The 'Subbotnik' Case

An article in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. In a case that could have implications for thousands of Subbotnik Jews in Russia, the Supreme Court has asked the Interior Ministry to reconsider the applications of two members of the community who sought to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, but were turned down, ostensibly because they were married to non-Jews. The Subbotniks are a branch of Jewry whose ancestors were Russian peasants who converted to Judaism some 150-200 years ago; subbot is Russian for sabbath. There are an estimated 20,000 Subbotniks still living in Russia today, many of whom are considering immigrating to Israel, according to Michael Freund, who has been in contact with the community on behalf of Shavei Israel, an organization he founded that seeks out and aids far-flung Jewish communities worldwide. Shavei Israel (literally "Returners to Israel") is one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court case. Until a few years ago, the Subbotniks had been considered Jewish under the Law of Return, which governs who is eligible for aliya and citizenship. Thousands, the majority of whom are religiously observant, have already immigrated to Israel, particularly during the massive waves of immigration during the 1990s. Several prominent Israelis, among them former IDF chief of of the general staff Rafael Eitan, hail from Subbotnik ancestry and many of the newer immigrants have joined Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel. However, when Lubov Gonchareva, 48, a Subbotnik from Vysoky, Russia, applied to immigrate to Israel in 2004, in order to be with her elderly parents - who had made aliya a few years earlier - the Ministry of Interior responded that she had forfeited her right to immigrate under the Law of Return by marrying a non-Jew. "There is no basis for such a ruling," Prof. Michael Corinaldi, an expert on the Law of Return, who took up Gonchareva's case and that of a second Subbotnik on behalf of Shavei Israel, explains to The Report. "On the contrary, the Law of Return gives non-Jewish spouses of Jews the right to immigrate as well. It's ironic that these Russian Jews are being denied the right to make aliya - not by Russian authorities as in the old days, but by Israel." After turning down the two applicants, the Interior Ministry sent a Rabbinate-appointed delegation to Russia to explore the "Jewishness" of the Subbotniks. The subsequent report, issued by the Rabbinate, and included in the High Court petition, raises doubts about the community's Jewishness. "To cast doubt on the Jewishness of an entire community is preposterous and racist," says Corinaldi. The lawyer lashed out at both the ministry and the rabbinate for not examining the backgrounds of the particular applicants, noting that Gonchareva's parents have a document from the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court attesting to their Jewishness, and that her father, who has since passed away, was buried by the hevra kadisha burial society in a Jewish cemetery in Israel. According to Corinaldi, the second petitioner, who prefers that her name not be publicized, also has documentation to support her claim to be Jewish and has brothers and sisters who live in Israel and were married in the country by rabbinate-appointed rabbis. In the November 27 hearing, the three-member bench, led by Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, asked the two petitioners to resubmit their applications to the Ministry of Interior and urged the state to consider them "favorably." "The Subbotnik Jews have endured terrible suffering and tragedy over the centuries because of their decision to join the Jewish people," says Freund, noting that members of the community were exiled to the outskirts of Russia by Czar Alexander I, murdered by the Nazis and oppressed by the Communist regime. "We can't turn our backs on them now." He notes that some 600-700 Subbotniks from Vysoki have already immigrated to Israel, and that many of the approximately 700 who remain in this rural village of 1,000 residents want to join their families but can't because of the state's position. "If we don't act soon, in the next generation many of the remaining ones will disappear as Jews. Not to allow them to come is illegal, illogical and anti-Zionist," charges Freund, who says he is "pleased" with the court ruling regarding the applications of the two petitioners but notes that other Subbotnik Jews have been left in limbo by the ruling. "The court refrained from issuing a ruling on the status of the Subbotnik community of Russia," he notes. Freund tells The Report that Shavei Israel plans to wait for the formation of the new government, following the February election, and the appointment of a new interior minister in the hope that "we will be able to bring about a change in policy without going back to court. We are not giving up on this issue. We are determined to bring about a change in the status of Subbotnik Jews of Russia." An article in Issue 18, December 22, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.