Checking off religion

How Soviet Jews were delivered into the hands of Israel’s bureaucratic jungle – all because they did not write ‘Jewish’ in the ‘religion’ section of their immigration forms.

JEWISH CHILDREN in Bishkek (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For many years, Soviet Jews who made an error when filling in the “religion” box on their application form for immigration to Israel, due to their lack of knowledge resulting from their atheistic Communist past, have not been able to prove that they are in fact Jewish. But having been confused, sometimes intentionally, by Israeli officials in the former Soviet Union (FSU) at the time of application, they and their children have been denied the right to make aliya.
As it stands, this unfortunate error does not seem to have a statute of limitations or the prospect of reversal. A person who made a wrong entry on the form made a life sentence.
“It was quite a shock to find myself in an Israeli prison at Ben-Gurion Airport and spend a night there,” says Svetlana Lysenko, 26, a Jewish woman from Ukraine who is an interior designer and daughter of a well-known Ukrainian politician. “I was frightened. Instead of being in the bright hall with the fountain that I liked so much, I was in a gloomy room under lock and key.”
Lysenko arrived in Israel on the eve of Purim to spend time with her grandfather, who is suffering from cancer. After undergoing investigation at the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority, she was denied entry into Israel. Her boyfriend, Alex Krasov, an Israeli citizen, was waiting for her. She called him from her Israeli mobile phone, expressing the hope that the strange incident would be resolved soon, but five hours later she called for the last time, saying, “My mobile will be taken now, and I won’t be able to call. I am being transferred to prison.”
Twenty-four hours later, Lysenko was sent back to Ukraine, and her foreign passport was stamped “Refused entry into Israel.”
It seems very surprising. Today, citizens of Ukraine do not even require a visa to visit Israel. The Israeli police were not looking for charming blonde girls suspected of working as prostitutes. So what was in Lysenko’s past that warranted such treatment? Lysenko wrote her story for her lawyer.
“I was born in Ukraine in 1987. It was the end of the Soviet period. My mother is Jewish, my father is Russian. When I was a young girl, we didn’t know anything about Judaism, although we always knew that we were Jewish; it was Soviet secular understanding of being Jewish. My grandmother and grandfather and all my relatives on my mother’s side immigrated to Israel in 2001. In 2003, the first course of Hebrew was opened in Ukraine by the Jewish Agency, and I started studying Hebrew there with my mother. I first visited Israel in 2006 and fell in love with the country and continued going to the Jewish Agency in Ukraine.”
Then she wrote about the dramatic event that changed the course of her life.
“In May 2007 it was suggested that I go on the Taglit-Birthright program to visit Israel. I had some doubts about it because the program was designed for those youths who had never been to Israel, but I had already been there. But people from the Jewish Agency told me that I could go.”
Full of hope and with no fears, Lysenko went to the Israeli embassy in Kiev. It was August 2, 2007. That summer was hard for the embassy. There was not enough staff, and people who wanted to obtain a visa had to wait outside the building for many hours. When it was her turn to apply, more than two hours later, Lysenko was told by an irritated clerk that she was too late.
However, she was given a form to fill out. At the time, she didn’t know it was a form for immigration to Israel and not the one she had been given by the Jewish Agency to join the Taglit program.
She filled it out according to her Ukrainian passport. On it, her nationality is registered as Russian because of her father.
When she got to the “religion” section of the form, she decided to leave it blank. Her family was completely secular, even atheist.
“I didn’t know what to write. The Jewish Agency recommended that I fill out the form according to my Ukrainian passport. But there was no such entry on my passport,” she recalled. “I took the form to an official, and heard him say, ‘Such a stupid girl. Why didn’t you put down a religion?’ The clerk threw the papers on the floor. I started crying... I really didn’t understand what was going to happen. It was totally unexpected.
“Then I was sent to speak to a female official, who asked me strange questions about religion, such as ‘What is the main religion in Ukraine? What is your father’s religion? Why didn’t you mention that you were Christian? When were you baptized?’ I said I wasn’t. I said that I was not a Christian and was never baptized.
“Then a moment came that I will never forget. The woman took the phone, dialed a number and said that if I didn’t confirm that I was Christian, they would start checking the way of life of my grandmother and grandfather in Israel, and if their lifestyle was not Orthodox they would send them back to Ukraine. I was really frightened by this prospect. I was so afraid that something bad would happen to my dear relatives, that I agreed to write what they recommended.
I wrote ‘Christianity’ on the form.
“A few minutes later, I was informed that my participation in the Taglit program was canceled, together with my right to return to Israel. I went home confused and depressed. I didn’t know what to do.”
That is the beginning of the story.
Since that moment, Lysenko has been trying to prove that a terrible mistake had been made, and she is trying to explain to the Interior Ministry the circumstances under which the mistake was made. But her endless attempts are proving to be futile.
A year ago, a lawsuit was filed in the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Lysenko continued to visit her relatives in Israel and met her boyfriend there.
She was very careful and never violated any visa regulations. But last time, she was denied entry into Israel, was incarcerated and was sent back to Ukraine.
THIS STORY may sound strange, but it is not unique – far from it. Natalia Sinusova has never met Lysenko, having grown up thousands of kilometers from her.
She is also Jewish according to Halacha and is also from a mixed family – her father is Russian. She is from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. She started thinking about making aliya against the background of pogroms on nationalistic grounds between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek people in 2006.
The Jewish Agency, fearing that pogroms could follow, decided to encourage the aliya of local Jews. Sinusova, a 34-year-old single mother, was invited to a meeting at the agency. At the time, she already had participated in some activities with the Jewish community of Bishkek, attended meetings and arranged to have her son circumcised – and a mohel (ritual circumciser) from Israel went to Bishkek.
Sinusova followed the recommendations of the Jewish Agency to fill out the form in the embassy according to her passport. But when it came to the “religion” section, she was in a bind. She grew up as a totally secular person, an atheist. She didn’t know anything about Jewish traditions and had only started learning about them. What about her son? She wanted him to come back to the tradition, which was why she had him circumcised. But she, as a truthful and honest person, chose not to write anything in the box. A few minutes later, after giving in the form, she was asked to speak to the consul.
“Why did not you fill in your religion?” he asked.
“Because I am secular,” she answered.
“I never learned the religious customs and traditions. What should I write if I am secular? Perhaps you could tell me.”
“But you said that your father was Russian. What is the religion of Russians? Christianity? Why don’t you write that?” he said.
So she did. She could not imagine what would happen next. By doing that, she forfeited her and her young son’s right to make aliya.
She stayed alone with her son in conflict- ridden Kyrgyzstan, while her parents immigrated to Israel. She lived with only one hope – to go to Israel and to explain that it was a stupid mistake. She was not the one who was responsible for the error. It was the official who had recommended that she make the declaration about herself.
For Israelis and some Westerners, such a situation may seem inconceivable. But the phenomenon of a total lack of religion in the FSU was described by many researchers of Communism.
Yosef Begun, a well-known refusenik, says this situation was very problematic. “We grew up with the idea that religions were ‘remnants of the accursed past,’” he recalls, “and you had better stay away from them, being a good Communist Party person.
People were afraid of getting close to any religion.”
He remembers such an episode. “Once when I decided to start learning the Jewish language, I thought about Yiddish, but an old man recommended that I learn Hebrew instead. I asked him what it was. He said, ‘Hebrew was the language that the Bible was written in.’ And I asked him what the Bible was. I was not a schoolboy, I was 30 years old, I lived in Moscow, not in a small village – but still I didn’t know anything about the Bible.”
WAS THIS situation regarding religion totally unknown to the Israeli consuls who went to the FSU countries to promote aliya in the 1990s and 2000s? Ya’acov Kedmi, former head of the Nativ organization, worked in that position from 1992 to 1999. Was he aware of the situation wherein people who were Jewish according to Halacha were refused the right to immigrate to Israel? “Yes,” he says. “There were only two options: First, if there was a denunciation and somebody wrote a letter to the Israeli Embassy saying something like ‘Josef Abramovich Rabinovich was baptized in this church.’ Although in most cases it was revenge, not a real situation.
But the attitude was serious.
“The second case was just plain ignorance on the part of the people who applied for citizenship. The psychology of the Soviet people was not just distorted, it was twisted. People were trying to be smart, to do the right thing. They went to the Israeli embassies throughout the USSR and asked, ‘What would be the best thing to write?’ It was a mistake, of course. They were foolish and were turned out into the cold.”
But now that they know better, they have no recourse to change it, and no one in Israel seems to want to help them.
“I am completely opposed to this,” says Kedmi. “There should be a presumption of innocence. Somebody who, because of his stupidity or lack of knowledge, wrote a wrong word on the form should have the right to explain his logic because he was acting in the context of a Soviet person, and a Soviet person has no religion. He was ‘freed from religion’ by Communism. That is why Soviet people filled out the form according to the principles that existed in that country.”
Did the Israeli counselors who worked in the former Soviet Union have a set of questions to ask? Is that why so many people from different FSU countries recount similar stories of being led astray? Kedmi says they did. “There was a list of recommended questions. Since there is an amendment to the Law of Return from 1955, that a person who changed religion was deprived of the right of return, the Israeli counselors tried to understand how the person felt, especially if the person was from a mixed family and mentioned any other nationality according to his passport. But it took them totally by surprise when an applicant for aliya asked, ‘What answer would be better for you?’ For Israelis, it was inconceivable,” he says.
But if those people can prove that they did not change their religion, why won’t the Interior Ministry allow them to change their declaration? “Israeli bureaucracy is very consistent and is trying to protect its decision,” says Kedmi.
This opinion can be confirmed by the experience of Lysenko and Sinusova. It demonstrates how Israeli institutions regard the presumption of innocence.
For more than five years, Lysenko could not get a hearing in the Interior Ministry. Sinusova was lucky to have one, but her hopes of explaining the situation and getting a better understanding were dashed.
In the summer of 2009, Sinusova was invited to the Interior Ministry branch in Haifa. She went with her mother, Rimma, who is Jewish according to Halacha and an Israeli citizen. She hoped that her mother could help her tell the true story of her atheist upbringing in the FSU and her ignorance of religion.
But the Russian-speaking clerk, Irena, was not interested in any “true story.”
She needed confirmation, and everything had been prepared in advance.
Sinusova recalls the dialogue that took place. She says, “From the beginning of the meeting, Irena repeatedly said, ‘You should confirm that you changed religion and became a Christian for the sake of your son. It would be better for you not to confuse the Interior Ministry. Anyway, nobody will believe you that you were not baptized.
Therefore, please sign.’” BUT THIS time Natalia was wiser. She had learned her lesson and didn’t want to take the advice of an official anymore.
“The meeting was terrible,” she recalls.
“My mother and I were trying very hard to explain my mistake, to explain the very fact that I was not a Christian and never had been a Christian, that my son was studying at a religious Jewish school in Haifa, and that I did not have any reason to baptize him. We didn’t know anything about Judaism, that’s true. But we were saying one thing, and Irena was writing something else – what had been prepared in advance.
“In fact, everything we were saying was meaningless. That was a dialogue of the deaf; she didn’t need to listen to us.
At the end of the meeting, she asked me to sign the same declaration about a change of religion. I looked at her and thought, ‘Why isn’t she afraid of God? She is a Jewish woman, a citizen of Israel, an official clerk of the state ministry. I had a secular upbringing, but I could not accept lying. Why is she doing this?’ She asked me to sign under duress, knowing that with this I would be deported from Israel together with my son. Yes, I made a mistake, but should my son and I be punished for the rest of our lives?” A week later, Sinusova received an official response regarding the hearing. Even the fact that she did not sign the false declaration was not significant for the Interior Ministry. Aviav Rozen wrote to her, “Mrs. Sinusova is not entitled to the Law of Return, since she changed religion.
The decision has been made in the ministerial department in Jerusalem.
Among other things, we base it on the declaration written by her in our department that she was baptized of her own free will for the sake of her son.”
Upon reading that, Sinusova could only exclaim that this official document was based on utter lies written not in Stalin’s Russia but in democratic Israel.
“I was in a desperate situation,” she says. “I had no permission to stay in Israel, and I had nowhere to go.”
TWO MORE years passed, and she and her son remain in the country without official status. Then she got a lawyer involved. She received the status of foreign worker for two years and can stay in Israel legally, but without medical insurance.
At the end of that period, her lifestyle will be examined.
The same status was given to her son, despite the fact that he does have the right of return, since his grandmother is Jewish. Rimma is a citizen of Israel and would be happy to help the boy receive the status of new immigrant, but the Interior Ministry refuses to grant him that status, insisting that he has to go back to Kyrgystan to get a passport there and then apply for Israeli citizenship when he is 18 (he is now 15).
“We have no money for this idea,” says Sinusova, “and the trip would be dangerous, since the country is still conflictridden.”
Can the religious institutions be helpful in such situations? “Unfortunately not,” says Rabbi Shimon Har-Shalom, founder and director of Shorashim, an organization established in 2005 with the support of the religious Zionist organization of Tzohar rabbis, to help Jews from the FSU find their roots.
“We are aware of hundreds of such cases. In one case, a person paid with his life for the mistake he wrote on the form. We don’t know of a single case where the Interior Ministry acknowledged the mistake made by Israeli counselors in the FSU and corrected it. Not a single case in more than 20 years of the mass wave of aliya from the FSU! A person who made a wrong entry on the form received a life sentence,” he says.
“This situation is completely illogical.
From a rabbinical point of view, those people are completely Jewish. They have Jewish mothers and grandmothers,” he says. “We can find people who can confirm the Jewish history of the families...
We work very hard to find any evidence of belonging to Jewry for people who lost their documents. We travel to distant places to speak to elderly people who can remember Jewish grandmothers and provide some proof.
“Here everything is clear. The people were victims of the Soviet system of education.
What else is absurd is that during the long Jewish history, the rabbi of the community was the one who said if the person was Jewish. Now the rabbi confirms that the person belongs to the Jews, but it does not work. We don’t even have the opportunity to perform a conversion. Since those people are Jewish, we can’t do it.
“We are facing insanity. The State of Israel permits entry to the country to people who don’t have any connection to the Jewish world, yet it closes the doors to those innocent people who are Jews. Their behavior, by the way, is typical of the Soviet Jews, who were afraid of everything and tried to register as Russians just to survive and advance in their lives.”
Before the elections to the Knesset, MK Amnon Cohen (Shas) proposed a bill on how to determine the nationality and religion of a person. “If the rabbinical court decides that a person is Jewish, the interior minister should listen to them.”
The bill passed its preliminary and first reading in the Knesset.
Unexpected support came from Batya Karmon, former head of the visa department of the Interior Ministry and former “Iron Lady” of the State of Israel. In an interview with Novosti Nedeli, she said, “If we are talking about a limited number of such people and there is evidence from rabbis that they are Jewish, permission for a special procedure – Return to Judaism – should be granted.”
It may be a good idea, but it couldn’t help Lysenko when she came to visit her sick grandfather for Purim. In the “Refused entry into Israel” that Lysenko received from the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority at Ben-Gurion Airport, the reason for refusal was explained as follows: “Entry into Israel refused after investigation held by Lila Koltun, on suspicion of working illegally.”
Lysenko explains that during the investigation at the airport, she was repeatedly asked about the suspicion of her working illegally in Ashkelon. But she had never been to Ashkelon nor did she have to work illegally, as she is a professional interior designer, and the daughter of a wealthy father.
In its reason for the refusal given to Novosti Nedeli, the Interior Ministry chose a different version: “Svetlana Lysenko has been visiting Israel as a tourist since 2006. Every time she comes, she applies for a status in the country for different reasons. To be clarified: Her first request filed at the Israeli Consulate in Ukraine was rejected after it was found that she was not entitled to the Law of Return. Upon her recent arrival, given the history of the case, it was decided not to allow her to enter Israel.”
THIS INCIDENT prompted lawyer Roni Lesovoy to file a lawsuit in the Supreme Court on behalf of Lysenko last year and to push for a hearing.
Says Lesovoy, “We are facing a totally absurd situation. If somebody due to his own ignorance or lack of knowledge or under pressure or according to recommendations made an incorrect entry on the form, there is no way to correct it.
And it doesn’t matter that there is clear evidence from people who can prove the religion of the person. There is evidence that this person goes to synagogue on a regular basis, participates in the Jewish community activities, studies Hebrew, learns about Jewish traditions. There are letters from the rabbi of the community – yet nothing can help. On the other hand, there is no clear evidence that the person goes to church, that another religion was imposed on him by a secular power, and nothing can be done.
“As a lawyer specializing in obtaining status in the country, I can say that it is much easier to obtain the status of foreign worker, who does not have any connections with Jews, than for those unfortunate people who made an incorrect entry on their immigration application form. This is a legal paradox. I have a letter from the chief rabbi of the Brodsky Synagogue of Kiev that Svetlana is studying Torah and is a Jewish woman from the rabbinical point of view.
Against all this background, she was deported from the country for the ‘crime’ of seeking legal status and making the Interior Ministry irritated by this,” he says.
The hearing is expected to take place soon.
There is a long way to go for this small revolution, as the violation of human rights is still taking place.
The writer is a correspondent for Novosti Nedeli and a consultant on the sectoral media outlets for foreign embassies in Israel.