Millions of Israelis are defined as ‘others’ by religious law. Israel’s statistics bureau is now set to define them as “extended Jewish.”
In Israel, nearly half a million citizens are defined as “others” – a category for those who are neither “Jew” nor “Arab”. But the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics is getting ready to expand the definition of Jewish, in a move that would lead to wider recognition of 4.6 percent of the Israeli population in official publications on demographics.
The proposal to scrap the “others” category was tabled two weeks ago, and the members of the committee that proposed the idea predict that the suggested changes will be adopted, according to a report by Haaretz.
“A problematic category”
Under Israel’s “Law of Return”, all non-Israeli Jews, including converts to Judaism are entitled to settle in Israel and receive full Israeli citizenship under the auspices of “recognised Jewish communities.” According to official Israeli data, there were more than 3,340,000 immigrants who have made Aliyah (immigration) to Israel since the state’s establishment as of October 2021.
Despite being recognised by the law of return, however, ‘the others’ are not falling under the category of Jewish by halakha, Jewish religious law. While descent by matriline, being born to a Jewish mother is what makes a person Jewish by the law, having at least one Jewish grandparent grants the right to immigrate.
Data show that Aliyah has been increasing in recent years from various countries including the United States. But the Russian-speaking immigrants, who first immigrated in the 90s still make up the majority of “others.” At the end of 2020, 415,147 Israelis were listed as “other.”
Eliahu Ben Moshe, a demographer and statistician from the Hebrew University told Haaretz that the definition was “demeaning and problematic,” and even the top decision makers were aware of the problem.
Even though Minister of Intelligence Elazar Stern first brought up the initiative, Moshe says the conclusion was already there, and Stern just happened to be the first person who proposed it.
Moshe’s committee recently suggested that the scrapped category should be replaced with “enlarged” or “extended” Jewish population. The proposed category for the Statistics Bureau would include all Jews under Law of Return, even though they’re not necessarily halachically Jewish.
“In the United States, it is accepted that children of mixed marriages get included in the tally of the Jewish population,” Moshe said, adding that the committee was more or less using that as their model.
Another argument of the proposal was that the categorisation would put off those who fall under the category – a result that goes against Israel’s desire to convert non-Jews who immigrate to Israel.
If approved, the non-Arab Circassian Muslims also would be defined as “extended Jewish”, as well as members of other religious groups who are married to an Israeli.
A stumbling block
The categorisation causes some hurdles too.
The citizens who are not halachically Jewish are not allowed to get married in Israel through the rabbinate, often trying to find alternative ways such as marrying abroad or in unrecognised ceremonies.The ‘others’ are also not allowed to be buried in Jewish cemeteries.
In some cases, DNA tests became a solution to prove Jewishness for those challenged by the religious bureaucracy. After half a dozen complaints, it was revealed that Israeli rabbinical courts were increasingly relying on such genetic tests, and in some cases, even requesting them, a 2019 report said.
Even the Statistics Bureau’s change of categorisation is approved, however, some argue that it will not cause any practical change. The Interior Ministry would still keep the religious classification as it is and anyone who is not halachically Jewish still would be listed as “not classified by religion.”
Israel’s Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana previously argued that Israel should adapt to a more welcoming approach which isn't based on being halachically Jewish but rather being “Jewish enough to live here under the terms of the Law of Return.”
The minister is now getting ready to propose a legislation that would make Orthodox conversions easier for those who are not halachically Jewish.