Why is immigration so divisive?

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post 

Several years ago at the iconic Restobar in Jerusalem, before it closed, a friend of mine made an outlandish statement that still stings today. In the midst of a discussion about Israeli society she blurted out: “They let in a million Russian non-Jews.” This friend is from a mixed marriage – her mother is a Jew. But she is a radical leftist who actually opposes the existence of the State of Israel. So why the sudden fear about the “non-Jews,” the Russians?

The statue of Alexander Zaid

The statue of Alexander Zaid

Her response, and her inflated figures about the number of “non-Jews” lurking among us due to the Law of Return, represent a strange trend in Israel. The Law of Return was one of the first major pieces of Israeli legislation, passed in July of 1950. It was the cornerstone of the foundation of Israel. One-time religious affairs minister Yossi Beilin recalls that, “Until 1958 all people who declared themselves Jews were registered as Jews, because there was no reason to suspect they were lying. Israel was a poor country and the Knesset didn’t fear that masses of non-Jews would seek citizenship here.”

It is interesting to recall that among some of the earliest Zionists there were those whose Jewish roots (or lack thereof) would today lead to them being labeled “non-Jews” or perceived and denigrated as economic immigrants. Alexander Zaid was among the founders of the pre-state self-defense organizations Bar-Giora and HaShomer, and Rafael Eitan was a chief of staff of the IDF. Both were descendants of Subbotnik Jews, Christian peasants who had been become Jewish in Russia in a mass movement in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Sobbotniks in the 19th century

Sobbotniks in the 19th century

One might almost say that the origins of the some of the founders of Israel’s army lie with the peasantry of Russia, who came to Israel during the First Aliya. Today’s Chief Rabbinate might not accept them as Jews, but that same rabbinate is perfectly happy to live under the peace provided by the protective sword that those men beat their plowshares into.

Fast forward to today. Chief Rabbi David Lau in an interview with Yair Ettinger claimed that “Israel has to decide if it wants to be a welfare state for the third world bringing in everyone who has a connection with Judaism, or perhaps only those who are Jews.” He then provide an example that seems to contradict his theory. He claimed he knew of a case of “a grandfather who isn’t even buried here [in Israel], he’s buried in Russbach, Germany, but because of one grandfather, 78 [relatives] of his wife, grandchildren, everyone, gets absorption benefits and all the rights.” You’d think he was describing the German hordes gathering on Rhine to plunder the lands of Rome in the 5th century. Here are these 78 Visigoths, savages set to plunder the land of milk and honey.Really? Are 78 relatives of a perfectly nice German- Jew really a major threat to Israel?

There are several different approaches people take to immigration in Israel. One theory is that the demographics of the immigrants, who are not seen as “real Jews,” threatens Israel, either making it non-Jewish or because intermarriage will change the supposedly “purer” Jewish genes. Israel Prize laureate Ariel Rubinstein wrote in December 2012, “During the years of massive immigration, we were so liberal that we encouraged the immigration of hundreds of thousands of people whose only Jewish connection is a genetic shard. And thus we changed the demographic composition of the Jewish people forever.”

“we were so liberal that we encouraged the immigration of hundreds of thousands of people whose only Jewish connection is a genetic shard”

There is a populist trend as well. When it was revealed that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s son might be dating a non-Jew, many gossiped and some claimed it was a “threat.” Deborah Black penned an op-ed claiming she often felt castigated for marrying a Jew and moving to Israel. “I’m still not Jewish, but like my kids, I’m also a good citizen. I care about this country and I care about the people living here,” she wrote.

The media often reports on claims that the interior ministry hassles non-Jewish spouses. It even led President Shimon Peres to claim “Israel needs to update and outline its future immigration policies in order to correctly handle the developing situation.”

Another area that we hear about non-Jewish immigrants is when there are accusation of “dubious conversions.” In a 2008 case a Jewish Agency envoy was accused of helping Jews make aliya from Venezuela “although he knew their conversion process was dubious,” according to the report. Earlier this month the Supreme Court heard a case relating to 13 African- American converts from Kansas city who live in Ashkelon and who the Interior Ministry has been zealously trying to deport because it thinks their conversion was “bogus.” Haaretz noted “in recent years, African-American converts have come under intense scrutiny by Interior Ministry officials… these converts are frequently questioned by ministry officials about their possible connections to the Black Hebrew community.”

Let’s take a step back and ask the most important question: Who cares? Who cares if 13 African-Americans were involved in a “bogus” conversion? Who cares if a few dozen Venezuelans had a “dubious” conversion? Who cares if people with only a “sliver” of demographic connection to the Jewish people come to Israel? Are these immigrants staffing the BDS movement, are they the leading filmmakers, documentarians, artists and academics who live in Israel and oppose the country, support boycotting it and are the star speakers abroad at events bashing Israel? No. For the most part, the people who came to Israel with “dubious” connections go to the army, love the country and pay taxes.

Many immigrants of different backgrounds are proud Israelis (Seth J. Frantzman)

Many immigrants of different backgrounds are proud Israelis (Seth J. Frantzman)

When Chief Rabbi Lau talked about Israel becoming a “welfare state for the third world” because of immigrants, he should have been looking in his “pure Jewish” backyard of Bnei Barak and Mea She’arim. That is the real third world in Israel. It isn’t among immigrants. The poverty levels among ultra-Orthodox Jews are among the highest of any group. If the country wanted to have a policy based on deporting those who contribute the least economically, it would have to deport many people with clear Jewish credentials, before getting to the “dubious” immigrants.

The real question is where this anti-immigrant zeal came from. The Law of Return was supposed to unite the Jewish people, and save victims of anti-Semitism. Today people are asked to beg all the time to be “recognized” as Jews, whether it is at weddings or before immigration. The chief rabbi claimed that too many converts were not being regulated, saying that “to give a municipal rabbi conversion power is like letting a pharmacist perform surgery because the hospital is crowded.”

What is this conversion centralization zeal? This conversion process isn’t mentioned in Talmud or Torah. The conversion process 100 years ago was deregulated and dispersed. For all we know the ancestors of many of the chief rabbis of Israel might have been converts. King David was a descendent of what today might be castigated as a “dubious” conversion, one performed not even by a municipal rabbi. And if King David is to be exiled from the Jewish people, well, it calls into question the very nature of the idea of a people.

Ruth the Moabite, the great grand-mother of King David

Ruth the Moabite, the great grand-mother of King David

King David

King David

Between the chief rabbi and many other ignorant,zealous and otherwise uninformed voices in Israel, there is a foolish attempt to make divisive what should be a positive experience; aliya and the desire by many to come to the Land of Israel. Everyone who really fears the “non-Jews” who immigrate should ask themselves why.

Why? Why do you fear them or dislike them so much? And what if you found out that you were not fully Jewish? Because, after all, from King David to Rafael Eitan, many were from mixed backgrounds.

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