Panel: Bring in 10,000 'Subbotniks'

by Nina Gilbert —THE JERUSALEM POST  — June 21, 2005
Members of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee called on Interior Minister Ophir Paz-Pines on Monday to use his authority to allow into the country some 10,000 "Subbotniks" a Sabbath-observing "Judaizing sect" that broke off from the Russian Orthodox Church five centuries ago, not universally considered Jewish.

Committee Chairwoman Colette Avital (Labor) said the group was suffering from anti-Semitism, but was not being recognized by Israel as Jews. Avital said the group should be allowed to come to Israel under the Law of Return, and that many already have family in Israel. In its meeting Monday, the committee discussed the current distress of Jews who live in the Voronezh area.

A representative of the Jewish Agency said there were as many as 10,000 in the group of Russians who practise Judaism. He said the problem with their immigration was the fact that their nationality was registered as Russian and not Jewish.

The committee was informed that the Chief Rabbinate was conducting a study of the group to determine their Jewishness from a halachic perspective, and would issue a report on their status.

MK Yuri Shtern (National Union) said the late minister Rafael Eitan had been a descendent of the group.

Michael Freund, who works with the Shavei Israel group and frequently contributes to The Jerusalem Post, said two years ago the government began "making problems" for the potential immigrants. He said thousands in the group immigrated during the aliya wave that began in the early 1990s.

"Those who immigrated are treated here as Jews in all respects," he said. "There is no consistent policy that is being applied to the Subbotniks."

He blamed the government and the Nativ liaison bureau for dragging its feet and warned that the group would disappear in two generations as a result of intermarriage and assimilation.

"They are pleading to come to Israel to join their relatives and be with the Jewish people," he said, noting that the group had a long history of Zionism, including arrivals in the 1920s. He said they have been undergoing conversion upon arrival to remove any doubt over their Judaism.

Paz-Pines said Subbotniks couples who had not intermarried were being given immigrant status. However, the agency official, Boris Maftzir, said that the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 who have the right to immigrant don't want to leave their families behind.

In another committee discussion, Paz-Pines expressed support for preserving the Law of Return and continuing the policy of allowing grandchildren of Jews to immigrate to Israel.

Pines-Paz, who was speaking on new trends in immigration policies, said he was committed to retaining the right of grandchildren to be recognized as Jews for immigration purposes.

"It would not be right to cancel the clause," he said. He was responding to a concern voiced by Deputy Absorption Minister Marina Solodkin, who claimed that a report in Ha'aretz had indicated that Paz-Pines and Justice Minister Tzippi Livni were planning changes to the law.

Solodkin said she feared that that the political climate was becoming ripe for an amendment to the Law of Return. She warned that if the grandchild clause were removed it would result in a halt of immigration of children of Jews and Jews since families would not want to break up. She said that Israel also had an interest in retaining the clause as a means of maintaining immigration not only from former states of the Soviet Union but also from the United States and Europe where there were high rates of intermarriage.

The committee also discussed plans by the ministry to amend the immigration policy for elderly non-Jewish parents of immigrants. Paz-Pines said he had devised a plan to allow single elderly parents from the age of 60 to immigrate and to receive temporary residency after four years and citizenship after another three years. Parents over the age of 70 would only have to wait for two years for residency. At present, immigration is allowed from age 65.

At the same time, Paz-Pines said the ministerial legislation committee had opposed his proposal to reduce the waiting time for residency for immigrant children who have no status.

Avital (Labor) said the problem with Paz-Pines's proposal was that at age 60, the immigrants would have to wait for four years for health coverage.

She said the result would be that the parents would either decide not to come or their children would have an economic problem to finance health costs.

As for immigration from Ethiopia, Paz-Pines said he was anticipating that the number of monthly arrivals would double beginning in August. At present, some 300 Falash Mura are immigrating each month from Ethiopia.
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