Mortal Question of 'Jewishness'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A politician's false report that religious authorities had blocked the burial of several Russian immigrants killed in a terrorist bombing has revived an uncomfortable debate here over integration and the enduring question of who is a Jew.

For many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who came here in massive waves over recent decades, acceptance in Israeli society has been fraught with difficulties. Despite marked gains in political and economic power, many of the "new immigrants"--as they are still called, years after their arrival--have clashed with the conservative religious mores held by some segments of society. Some of the ultra-religious have questioned the Jewish credentials of the largely secular Russians.

On Saturday, distraught parents and siblings waited at the Abu Kabir morgue for information about family members slain the night before when a bomber killed himself and 20 others, most of them immigrant teens, outside a disco on Tel Aviv's crowded beachfront.

Sofa Landver, a member of parliament and a Russian immigrant who has lived in Israel for years, arrived at the morgue to help the families. Based on what social workers told her, she announced that the local burial society was refusing to inter three victims because they were not strictly Jewish.

Immediately, several politicians, who have long opposed the influence wielded by the ultra-Orthodox, took to the airwaves to complain. The Times, along with many other news media outlets, reported the burial ban and, the next day, its apparent reversal.

In fact, the debate was bogus. The burial society rabbis had not communicated with the families because of the Jewish Sabbath, and director Yehoshua Yishai said Thursday that his organization never would have refused to help with the appropriate arrangements.

"The entire argument was out of place and was beneath everyone's dignity," Yishai said in an interview.

Nevertheless, the fear was an understandable one, given past experience. The Orthodox rabbis who have controlled the rites of Jewish burial since Israel was founded 53 years ago will not permit burial of a non-Jew in Israel's Jewish cemeteries, places that are held sacred in the affirmation of religious identity.

Other arrangements can be made, but some Israelis see them as second-class.

For many years, Jewish-only burials often were not an issue. Jews were buried in Jewish cemeteries, Christians in Christian cemeteries, Muslims in Muslim cemeteries.

But as Israel took in hundreds of thousands of immigrants, some not recognized as strictly Jewish, the lack of burial options became a problem. And "mixed" families could not rest in peace together: The Jew in a family could be buried in a Jewish cemetery, but non-Jewish relatives, including spouses and children, would have to be buried elsewhere.

In an effort to address the problem, about 25 cemeteries since 1997 have set up sections designated for people whose Jewishness is in question. One "alternative" cemetery for secular burials opened in 1999 in the remote Negev desert town of Beersheba, and three more have been authorized by the Supreme Court. Some kibbutzim have their own cemeteries.

Two of the victims that Landver spoke about were buried at a kibbutz, and the third was buried at a cemetery in Petah Tikva, in the section designated for people whose Jewishness is in question.

Landver's charge infuriated Israel's rabbinical authorities, as well as some Russian immigrant politicians who say great progress has been made in burial policies. But Landver said she has seen numerous cases of immigrants who cannot receive a dignified burial.

Israelis, especially Russian immigrants, remember the case of 15-year-old Grigory Pesahovic, who was killed in a 1997 Palestinian suicide bombing. Even though he and his Russian immigrant parents lived in Israel as Jews, he could not be laid to rest in a Jewish cemetery. Grigory's mother and maternal grandmother were not Jewish; thus, under Halakha, Jewish religious law, he was not a Jew.

Family members took his body to a Greek Orthodox cemetery, under the mistaken belief that they could obtain a nonreligious burial. But the priest insisted on saying Christian prayers, and the family members balked because, as far as they were concerned, they were Jews.

The body remained in a morgue on the weekend until Yuli Edelstein, a Russian native and Israel's immigration minister at the time, intervened and found a plot in the Bahai section of a Jerusalem cemetery.

In 1993, Lev Peisakhov, a soldier who had emigrated from Azerbaijan, was killed by Palestinian guerrillas in the West Bank. Though hailed as a heroic Jew who had given his life for his country, Peisakhov was relegated to a fence-side burial spot in the military cemetery because his mother was Christian.

Outrage was widespread, and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered the body moved to the center of the cemetery.

Edelstein, who today is deputy minister for immigrant absorption, helped negotiate the compromise arrangement that allows burials of safek yehudim, or "questionable Jews," in separate sections of cemeteries. The demarcations are subtle, such as a row of trees or bushes, and not insulting, he said.

"In most regions of the country, there is a solution," Edelstein said. "This has been working since 1997." He accused Landver and her supporters of playing cheap politics.

But some immigrant advocates have complained that families feel shoved aside to the unwanted corners of graveyards.

"It is demeaning to be put in a special portion that is usually on the side," said Zeev Katz, a Russian studies professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and a longtime advisor to new immigrants. "There are concessions here and there [regarding burials], but it is far from resolved."

Under Israel's Law of Return, which ushered in wave after wave of immigrants, an applicant was eligible to move to Israel if he or she had a Jewish grandparent. But under Halakha, a person is a Jew only if his or her mother is Jewish.

Consequently, by some estimates, under Halakha as many as 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union--out of a total of nearly 1 million--are not Jewish. (Old Soviet law allowed for a person to be declared Jewish based on either parent.)

"Admittedly, there is a gap between the state law that recognizes them as Jewish for purposes of citizenship, while the Halakha does not recognize them as Jewish," said Yishai, the funeral director. "There is a cultural struggle in the state of Israel between those who observe religion and those who don't."

Marina Solodkin, another legislator and member of a party that represents Russian immigrants, said religious and secular authorities have had to learn that people arriving from the former Soviet Union might not be Jews under Halakha, but that does not mean they are Christians.

"These people are not baptized as Christians, they do not go to church, they are members of Jewish families," she said. Israel has come a long way in understanding this, she said.

But she also noted that the girls killed last week had come from numerous towns to converge on a disco in Tel Aviv that catered specifically to Russians. A nightclub for native Israelis was next door.

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Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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