Immigration of non-Jews to Israel increasing

JERUSALEM — More than half of last year's immigrants from the former Soviet Union were non-Jews, Minister of Jewish Affairs Michael Melchior said on Wednesday of last week.

He called the trend "a ticking time bomb."

Speaking at the first meeting of the Ministerial Committee on Conversion, Melchior said that in previous years, only 25 percent of the immigrants were not Jewish. The increase, he said, poses not just a religious problem, but a social and national problem.

The meeting was attended by only three of the 11 ministers on the committee: Melchior, the chairman; Interior Minister Natan Sharansky; and Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen. Also absent were representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements.

Melchior said that more than half of the 65,000 people who immigrated from the former Soviet Union last year were not Jewish.

Mike Rosenberg, director of the Jewish Agency's immigration and absorption department, said he did not have last year's figures, but confirmed that the number of those who were not halachicly Jewish among the immigrants from the former Soviet Union has been growing every year. In 1989, he said, there were 94 percent Jews and 6 percent non-Jews. By 1997, the last year for which the Agency had statistics, the percentage of Jews to non-Jews was 59 percent to 41 percent.

Rosenberg stressed that the policy of the Jewish Agency is to bring whoever is eligible under the "law of return," which is determined by the Israeli consular offices.

However, he added that having brought the immigrants, the Jewish Agency and the state of Israel have a responsibility to be very active in strengthening the immigrants' Jewish identity.

"Jewish identity is very lacking both among the Jewish and the non-Jewish immigrants. It is a problem for all the immigrants from the former Soviet Union," Rosenberg said.

He said he feels very strongly that for those who want to convert, every effort should be made by the Jewish Agency and the government to make this possible. Conversion today, he added, is very difficult.

Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said the issue of the growing number of non-Jewish immigrants was to be discussed at last week's board of governors meeting.

The non-Orthodox movements stayed away from the ministerial committee meeting on conversion because their people had been invited not as representatives of the respective movements, but as members of the board of the joint conversion institute, which was opened as part of the implementation of the Neeman Commission recommendations.

They also objected to the fact that Melchior's first order of business was to ask the Israel Supreme Court to delay hearing a petition by the Conservative movement against the Interior Ministry decision not to register as Jews adopted children converted by its rabbis in Israel. The hearing was scheduled for Tuesday.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Conservative movement, said last week that his movement did not agree to yet another delay in a case which had dragged on for four years.

"Instead of entering a dialogue and promoting accord, Minister Melchior has embroiled us in a dispute which we did not seek," Bandel said.

He conceded that, in any case, the court would not reach a decision anytime soon and that to find another date on which 11 justices could sit together could take as long as eight months.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, pointed out that the IRAC is representing over 40 petitioners, all of them converts whose cases are dependent on a judgement in the case of the adoptees.

One such petitioner is a woman over 80. "How long does she have to wait?" asked Regev in a letter to the committee.

In response, Melchior said he spoke to the Reform and Conservative representatives and they welcomed the fact that the committee had been set up.

"I understand them. They have a great deal of experience with delays, but they promised me their cooperation and I intend to invite them to the committee meetings," Melchior said.

Regarding the non-Jewish immigrants, Melchior called for more classes on Judaism in the former Soviet Union and an expansion of the conversion institute.

"Our main message is one of cooperation between the streams of Judaism and finding a long-range solution to the problem [of conversion]," he said.

The committee intends to deal not just with the issue of conversion, but with all issues relating to religion and state, such as non-Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall.

Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, director of the Rabbinical Courts, said that last year all the various Orthodox rabbinical courts had converted about 3,500 people. During the past four years, about 10,000 have been converted, he said.