Millions to be given special Israeli status

September 1, 2017
Sarah Benton

Members of the Bnei Menashe – a ‘lost tribe’ – in Churachandpur village, India, during an Israeli Independence Day celebration. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya

Israeli State Panel Proposes Special Status for ‘Jew-ish’ non-Jews – Letting Them Stay Longer in Israel

New move to recognize people with Jewish roots, emerging communities and groups of Crypto-Jews, is meant to allow them to explore their Jewish heritage and learn about Israel

Judy Maltz, Haaretz
August 28, 2017

A government-appointed committee recommends that Israel create a new status for individuals around the world who have Jewish roots or belong to “emerging Jewish communities,” but are not eligible to immigrate to Israel or spend any length of time there.

The new status would allow these individuals to stay in Israel longer than the three months allowed by tourist visas, so they could explore their Jewish heritage and learn about the country, Haaretz has learned.

This is the key recommendation of the committee appointed by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry to formulate guidelines on how Israel should relate to individuals with a connection to the Jewish people or Judaism, but who do not qualify as Jewish under Israeli law or halakha (Jewish religious law). Millions of people worldwide could potentially benefit from this new status.

The report, whose recommendations were made available to Haaretz in advance of its expected publication in the coming weeks, stops short of recommending changes in the Law of Return, which determines who is eligible to immigrate to Israel. However, if adopted by the government, it could certainly open the way to such amendments.

The Law of Return provides citizenship only to individuals who have at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse, or who have converted to Judaism. Someone with one Jewish great-grandparent, therefore, is not eligible to move to Israel and can only visit the country as a tourist with a limited stay of three months.

If they aren’t fully recognized as Jews, the committee recommends that such individuals should at least benefit from some sort of “in-between” status, which could be conferred through a new visa designation.

The government committee, appointed two years ago, was headed by Ofir Haivry, a historian and political theorist who serves as vice-president of The Herzl Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank. He is also a founder of Jerusalem’s right-leaning Shalem Center. The other committee members are Zvi Hauser, a former cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Rotem Yadlin, a lawyer who served as Hauser’s deputy; journalist Fiamma Nirenstein, a former outspoken Italian lawmaker for Silvio Berlosconi’s right-wing People of Freedom party whom Netanyahu tried to appoint as ambassador to Rome; and Dr. Einat Wilf, a former Labour lawmaker, who is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an independent think tank.

The committee found that tens of thousands of individuals in Poland have Jewish roots, even though they don’t qualify for immigration under Israel’s Law of Return. Many are descendants of Jews who were forced to hide their identity during the Holocaust. A similar situation exists, though to a lesser extent, in Hungary.

The category of individuals with Jewish roots also includes Bnei Anusim – descendants of Jews forced to convert during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions.

In places like Colombia and Sicily, these Crypto-Jewish communities have organized themselves in recent years and are often much larger than the mainstream Jewish communities in their area, committee members found.
The category also includes groups who claim to be descended from the so-called “lost tribes,” such as the Bnei Menashe from northeastern India.

Emerging Jewish communities, also known as “Judaizing communities,” is a term used to refer to groups from remote corners of the world that have recently discovered Judaism and embrace Jewish practices – sometimes converting to Judaism, but often not. They can be found in South America, Africa and as far away as Papua New Guinea.

Under existing Israeli law, only Jews can obtain student visas to study in non-degree-conferring institutes of higher education in the country, which are mainly religious schools or yeshivas. As a result, individuals with Jewish roots or members of emerging Jewish communities cannot study Judaism in Israel outside of the university system. The new preferential status recommended by the committee would solve this problem, too.

The committee also made other key recommendations to the government, including that it formulate criteria that determine, once and for all, which communities with connections to the Jewish people are eligible for immigration.

To date, the report noted, no policy has ever been formulated and only groups that have lobbyists operating on their behalf in Israel – for example, the Ethiopian Falashmura (who were forced to convert to Christianity more than a century ago but still identify as Jews) and the Bnei Menashe – are allowed to immigrate (and undergo conversion upon arrival).

Many other groups are barred from the country, even though they have no less of a connection to the Jewish people and Judaism. That would include the Abayudaya of Uganda – who embraced Judaism at the turn of the last century and were formally converted by a Conservative rabbinical court about 15 years ago – and the Subbotniks, a Christian community that embraced Judaism in Russia more than a century ago.

It also recommended that, through its embassies abroad, the government should look to foster closer ties between the Crypto-Jews and the established Jewish communities.

The committee members found that, in many communities, the established Jewish leadership was hostile to the local Crypto-Jews and considered them a threat. The committee recommended finding ways to bring the Crypto-Jews into the fold, since they tend to be very strong supporters of Israel.

Moreover, the panel called on the government to reach out to leaders of Crypto-Jewish and other organized communities abroad that consider themselves Jewish and offer them the opportunity to study and tour Israel, as a first step in nurturing ties.

The panel also recommended that the government open cultural centres abroad – modelled on the German Goethe-Institut and the British Council – where individuals with Jewish roots and members of emerging Jewish communities could learn more about Judaism and Israel.

Finally, it said Israel should not close its doors to groups that have embraced Judaism but have no proven genetic connection to the Jewish people – such as those who claim descent from the “lost tribes.”

The government should consider recognizing those who have lived together as an organized Jewish community for a minimum number of years, such as 40, it added.

Government panel to look into connecting with gentiles of Jewish descent

Michael Freund is calling this initiative “crucial to the future of Israel and the Jewish people.

By Sam Sokol, J Post
August 17, 2015

The government announced the formation of a special committee to investigate the relationship between the state and gentiles, many of Jewish descent, who have shown an interest in Israel and the Jewish people.

In an advertisement that ran in several local newspapers, including The Jerusalem Post, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry described the exploratory committee and issued a call for public proposals regarding relations between Israel and “large groups around the world that have an interest in the Jewish people even if they are not entitled to rights under the Law of Return.”

Of special interest to the ministry is the ability of these interested groups, many of which are composed of the descendants of Jews, “to maintain open channels and collaborative efforts with the State of Israel,” it was announced on Friday.

“Over the past few years there has been an increasing awareness of large groups of people who have some type of connection to the Jewish people and Judaism but who are not themselves Jewish or have any rights under the Law of Return. These groups and their desire for some kind of connection with the Jewish people and/or Israel raises the questions of if and how the government should reach out/ work with them,” said ministry spokesman Jeremy Ruden.

“As the government agency charged with the connection between the Jewish communities in the Diaspora and the State of Israel, the Diaspora Ministry has decided to take it upon itself to look into the matter of what kind of policies should be put in place, if any, regarding these communities.”

“Just so it’s clear, the committee will not be taking up matters of conversion or aliya as these are not within the authority of the Diaspora Ministry,” Ruden added.

The committee will be chaired by political scientist Ofir Haivry, the vice president of the Herzl Center, and includes Israeli-Italian politician Fiamma Nirenstein; former MK Einat Wilf; Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom of Beit Morasha leadership seminary; former cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser and former senior government adviser Rotem Yadlin.

They are expected to meet 12 times and submit their report by February.

Among those the government is interested in are the descendants of people forced to convert to Christianity and Islam, the children and grandchildren of European Jews who hid their identities in the Soviet Union during the post-Holocaust period and groups claiming descent from the lost tribes, Haivry told the Post on Sunday.

Members of sects such as Sabbateans are also of interest.

When people who do not easily fit into the binary categories of Jewish (or eligible for the Law of Return) and gentile, it is hard for Israeli institutions to deal with them, he explained.

“It doesn’t compute.”

“We are talking about millions of people, the vast majority of whom have on the one hand no visible intention of becoming Jews. On the other hand [they have] a lot of interest in knowing more about Zionism, Judaism and Israel and even supporting Israel,” he said.

“First of all, the most basic thing is mapping them, who they are, and categorizing them into groups and getting the numbers and having this first level of knowledge, which is not there,” he said.

“Secondly, we will try to by talking to experts, as well as those representatives of those groups that approach us, to try and understand what interests they have, what they want and how much these things have an affinity with the needs and aspirations and interests of Israel.”

Among the ideas that have been raised was facilitating student visas for interested descendants of Jews and making it easier for them to learn about Judaism and Israel.

Citing criticism of Israel in the media, Haivry said he personally believes “it’s always a good thing to have an open approach to those who want to have better connections to learn more,” adding that such connections did not encompass conversion or proving people’s Jewish bona fides.

In a similar but unrelated effort, the Knesset will be holding the first meeting of its Lobby for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities in mid-October.

“The purpose of our Knesset lobby is to send a message to two communities, the normative Jewish world and the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities, that it is time to reconnect after we were cruelly ripped apart centuries ago. It is vital that we extend our hands in fraternal embrace and welcome our sisters and brothers, and try and find ways to assist those who seek a reconnection with our people,” said lobby director Ashley Perry, the president of the NGO Reconectar and a former adviser to Avigdor Liberman.

“I am delighted that the Israeli government also sees value in reaching out to these communities and at Reconectar we are working with numerous political, religious, academic and Jewish organizational leaders to ensure that we grasp this historic moment and strengthen and bolster our people.”

Michael Freund, whose organization Shavei Israel also works with the descendants of Jews, but which also proactively works on converting people, also expressed approval of the new initiative, calling the issue “crucial to the future of Israel and the Jewish people.”



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