Who is a Jew in the Jewish state?

Israel’s increasingly extremist religious authorities have, in recent years, rejected the Jewish identities of almost a half-million immigrants to Israel.

An ITIM rally to protest the Israeli Rabbinate’s blacklisting of American and other rabbis in 2016 (photo credit: ITIM)
An ITIM rally to protest the Israeli Rabbinate’s blacklisting of American and other rabbis in 2016
(photo credit: ITIM)
A few months ago, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics released an alarming statistic that received little attention in the Jewish media. According to the CBS, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate considered the majority of immigrants to Israel in 2018 to be non-Jews. The immigrants scrutinized by the Rabbinate were not Muslims or Christians, political refugees or asylum seekers. They were people the Rabbinate determined had only Jewish fathers or grandparents. They were people whose families had been oppressed for being Jews in the former Soviet Union, people “Jewish enough” to have been persecuted under the Nuremberg Laws and to be granted Israeli citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, but not “Jewish enough” to be recognized as Jews by Israel’s highest rabbinic authority.
In some ways, this statistic came as no surprise. Israel’s increasingly extremist religious authorities have, in recent years, rejected the Jewish identities of almost a half-million immigrants to Israel. These citizens, primarily immigrants from the former Soviet Union, are required to pay taxes and to send their children to the Army. But, as a result of having “no religion” entered alongside their names in the State Population Registry, they cannot marry in state-sanctioned weddings, divorce, receive Jewish burials, or exercise other fundamental rights of Jewish Israeli citizenship.
Despite the alienation this causes, and the demographic problem it poses, Israel’s religious establishment discourages citizens who have Jewish ancestry but are not Jewish according to Jewish law from converting to Judaism. The state converts less than 2,000 citizens to Judaism each year. State rabbis and rabbinical courts are often discriminatory if not openly racist toward immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri recently went so far as to say that he regrets that immigrants from the former Soviet Union were allowed into Israel and that he seeks to change the Law of Return. Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau, corroborated. “The Law of Return was a mistake,” he said.
My beliefs about Jewish identity were formed early on. I grew up in an Orthodox Zionist home in Riverdale, New York. My parents had run from the Nazis. When I was a child, my father described the terror he felt as a 12-year-old boy on the streets of Antwerp; my mother relayed the story of Nazis pounding on the door of her house in Bratislava when they came looking for her father. At SAR Academy and Camp Moshava, I was infused with a sense of Jewish peoplehood. Around the Shabbat table of my parents’ friends, Blu and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, I developed an understanding of the complexity of Jewish identity. Being Jewish, I came to understand, was about being part of a people with a shared history and a shared destiny, but with a remarkable diversity of religious customs and cultural experiences.
My connection with the Jews of the Soviet Union began years ago, too. In 1974, a photographer for The New York Times captured my image at a Soviet Jewry rally wearing a prison uniform and carrying a sign that read, “I am my brother’s keeper.” I had the thrill of seeing my school principal arrested when he brought our class to protest the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jews at the Russian Diplomatic Compound in Riverdale. I attended solidarity day parades in New York, and the “Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews” rally on the Mall in Washington, DC.
Rabbi Seth Farber interviews Avigdor Liberman at an ITIM Town Hall Meeting recently. (MAXIM DINSHTEIN)
Rabbi Seth Farber interviews Avigdor Liberman at an ITIM Town Hall Meeting recently. (MAXIM DINSHTEIN)
After earning a master’s degree in Jewish history and receiving rabbinic ordination, I made aliya in 1995. It did not take long for me to recognize the challenges Judaism faces when it is entwined with the apparatus of the state. I learned of the thousands of Israeli citizens who fly to Cyprus each year to marry in civil ceremonies, because they can’t have state-sanctioned Jewish weddings in Israel, of new immigrants who feel cast off by the Jewish state they yearned to live in.
In 2000, after hearing a particularly painful story from a couple that my wife and I met on a hike in the Judean Desert, I decided that the ironies and contradictions of Jewish life in the Jewish state, the disenfranchisement from Judaism so many Israelis experience, and the damage being done to the Jewish people by the state religious establishment were too great to ignore. I established ITIM (“Passages” in Hebrew) with a straightforward mission: to help Jewish Israelis lead full Jewish lives. 
ITIM’s expertise in helping people navigate state-administered matters of Jewish life, such as marriage and conversion, quickly grew. So did its reputation. Before long, the ITIM Assistance Center was helping Israelis participate in every facet of Jewish life, from birth to burial.
In 2010, we realized that helping people manage their way through the requirements of state authorities and rabbinical courts was not enough. We created an Advocacy Center with a team of in-house lawyers to reform public policies and, when necessary, to take state religious authorities to court. In 2016, when the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversion was leading to a crisis, we created the alternative Giyur K’Halacha Conversion Court Network, primarily for children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
ITIM steadily has grown into Israel’s leading religion-and-state advocacy organization. Our staff of 25 now facilitates Jewish life for nearly 8,000 people each year, legally challenges the religious establishment to be inclusive, and guides Israeli citizens through a compassionate conversion process. We are regular participants in Knesset hearings, and have excellent working relationships with key Knesset Members, government officials, rabbinic court judges, and others. Ahead of the recent national elections, we co-sponsored the principal Town Hall Meetings with political candidates on religion-and-state issues.
Over the years, ITIM has helped shape fundamental issues around Jewish identity. We have won Supreme Court cases that have limited the state’s ability to conduct unwarranted Jewish family identity investigations. We led an effort that prevented passage of a Knesset bill sponsored by ultra-Orthodox political parties that would have cemented the state’s monopoly over conversions. We exposed the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s blacklist of nearly 150 world rabbis whose religious authority in vouching for Jewish identity the Rabbinate rejects. 
Today, there are countless state policies and practices related to the question, “Who is a Jew?” that need to be challenged. Chief Rabbi David Lau recently admitted that state rabbinical courts use DNA tests – which run counter to Jewish law, and which represent a skewed view of Jewish identity – to verify if citizens (almost exclusively immigrants from the former Soviet Union) applying for marriage licenses are Jewish. Rabbinical courts routinely conduct investigations into the Jewish identities of extended families when one family member applies for a marriage license or a divorce. The Interior Ministry has revoked the official Jewish status of citizens, sometimes years after it was established. Last year, state-certified kosher supervisors banned religious Ethiopian Jews from coming into contact with wine at a kosher wine factory. (Members of the state religious establishment simply do not accept that Ethiopian-Israelis are Jewish.) 
But it is the decision to reject the Jewish identities of the majority of immigrants to Israel, and at the same time to put up barriers to their conversion that I find the most disturbing example of the Israeli Rabbinate’s exclusionary, extremist, and discriminatory practices. There have been only two years since the establishment of the State of Israel, 1953 and 1958, in which there were fewer Jewish immigrants to Israel than in 2018, based on the Rabbinate’s determinations. It is all but certain that this trend will continue, and according to the Rabbinate, there will be more non-Jews than Jews immigrating to Israel in the coming years. At the same time, the Rabbinate has the opportunity to bring nearly a half-million Israeli citizens into or back into the Jewish fold, thereby increasing Israel’s Jewish population by 8 percent. Yet it chooses to take the narrowest possible view of Jewish identity, and to reject the core idea of Zionism, the ingathering of the exiles. 
Fortunately, ITIM and other advocacy organizations are leading a civic movement that is demanding change on issues of Jewish identity in Israel. A demonstration led by Russian-Israelis to protest the Rabbinate’s use of DNA testing and other forms of discrimination against them is but one example. I addressed those protesters recently on a rainy Saturday night in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. They were not as organized as we were in Washington in 1987, and their numbers were not as strong. But their message was clear. As one woman’s placard read, “In Russia, I was a Jew. In Israel, I am a Russian.” 
Back in my student days, I could not have imagined that someday I would be advocating for the rights of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union in Israel, an Orthodox rabbi fighting for people’s Jewish identities in the Jewish state. But the cause of Jewish inclusion is critical at this moment in Jewish history, and I am privileged to be a part of it.
Rabbi Seth Farber, PhD, is founder and director of ITIM