While religious Jewish law defines a Jew as someone who was born to a Jewish mother or as someone who has converted to Judaism, Israeli law defines a Jew as someone who is descended from at least one grandfather who was Jewish. During World War II, the Nazis defined a Jew as someone who had at least one grandfather who was Jewish. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was often quoted as saying that the “grandfather clause” was Israel’s answer to Hitler.
The “grandfather clause” was never an really an issue, however, until the advent of the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union. In the late 1980s as the former Soviet Union began to collapse, hundreds of thousands of Jews who had been living in a land where the practice of Judaism had been forbidden since the 1920s would finally be able to come to Israel.
However, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens held identity cards as Jews, even though they had become an integral part of Soviet society – even in the most anti-Semitic areas of the Ukraine, Lithuania and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
The motivation of these non-Jews with Jewish roots was hardly one of Zionist intention. The former Soviet Union, with a collapsing society and deteriorating economy, was a place to leave. Israel, promising material comfort, was a desired place to come to.
In the late 1980s, many senior officials of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which processes immigration to Israel, suggested that the “grandfather clause” be dropped.
However, American Jewish charitable organizations objected. These organizations had been asked by Israel to raise funds for the exodus of Jews, and they protested any proposed in the Israeli government definition of “Who is a Jew?”
In the mid-1990s, the Jewish Agency for Israel sponsored ads in the major Russian papers that proclaimed that “If you have a Jewish grandparent, you can qualify for citizenship in Israel under the law of return.” That law also provided immigrants with a basket of free services for at least three years.
In 1997, a member of Israel’s Knesset Parliament, Alex Lubotzky, a liberal-minded Orthodox Jew, announced that he was ready to check out all conversion possibilities to provide all options of conversion for new immigrants. However, in December 1997, Lubotzky announced that of the 200,000 non-Jews who had arrived in Israel under the law of return, less than 2,000 expressed any interest whatsoever in becoming Jewish.
Instead, a Russian culture overtook many neighborhoods where former USSR residents established themselves, totally devoid of anything Jewish or anything Zionist.
The late Dr. Yuri Shtern, a hero in the Zionist resistance movement to the USSR, warned about a disturbing aspect of the non-Jewish immigration to Israel: anti-Semitism. Another former Soviet activist, Knesset member Yuli Edeslstein, concurred.
However, until very recently, the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government and the Israeli police would not react to the increasing problems that were beginning to surface, which included sporadic attacks of non-Jewish Russians on religious Israeli Jews.
One Russian Jewish Israeli, however, Dr. Zalman Gilichinski, made it his business to document Russian anti-Semitism in Israel and to mobilize Israel’s law enforcement system to tackle it. Gilichinski launched a Web site, www.Pogrom.org.il, which consolidated reports of unimaginable anti-Semitic neo-Nazi organizations in more than fifteen Israeli cities, organized by non-Jews whose families had come to Israel under the “law of return.”
Gilichinski pleaded with organizations and academic institutions that monitor anti-Semitism to join with him to report anti-Semitic attacks as a threat to Israel’s security and well-being. However, no groups would heed Gilichinski’s warnings. Undaunted, Gilichinski took his case to the highest levels of the police five years ago and kept updating the police with comprehensive reports of attacks launched by Israeli neo-Nazi cells along with reports of their subculture.
The unkindest cut of all was Gilichinski’s revelation that the precise anti-Semitic literature, tapes, CDs, movies and books that are now banned throughout the former Soviet Union are now sold and marketed in almost every bookstore and music store that serves the Russian speaking population in Israel.
The news of an anti-Semitic Russian movement in Israel led the news in the Jewish state yesterday.
Since only one group of neo-Nazis has been caught so far, it is reasonable to assume that this is only the tip of the iceberg of a crisis that hardly anyone in Israel ever expected to cope with.