The latest existential threat to Israel? Those Russians the world was implored to free

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Two nights back, Charlie Rose had on former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy to talk about the Israeli elections, and at 12:30 he brings up what he calls a fundamental issue, one I’d never focused on, involving the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Israelis. I thought he meant Palestinian Israelis. No:

We have today a situation in Israel in which 100s of 1000s of Israelis do not have a personal status in the country. They are not recognized technically as Jews. They come from the Soviet Union or have been born to Soviet…

When they want to marry, they have no way to marry and they have to go outside the country in order to marry. Their Jewish identity [is] not recognized by the state. These are very serious problems, because in the end this could be a major split inside Israeli society. Which I have said in the past… I think this is a greater threat to Israel than the Iranian nuclear threat.

I see that Philip Reeves of NPR reported on this earlier this month:

REEVES: The new arrivals qualified for citizenships under Israel’s Law of Return if they had or were married to someone with one Jewish grandparent. Rabbinical law, though, says that Jewishness passes through the maternal line. This defined more than 300,000 of the Russian-speaking immigrants as non-Jews. Galili says that was very tough for the new arrivals to accept.

GALILI: And they come here and they have the non-Jewish mother and the Jewish father. And suddenly, this motherland who’s expecting them to come says, oh, I forgot to tell you, you are not Jewish here.

REEVES: There are no civil marriages in Israel. If Russian Israelis defined as non-Jews wish to marry, they must go abroad or convert. Galili says conversion is not a popular option.

So this is an existential threat? It wasn’t two decades ago that Americans were being implored to set Russian Jews free. Now what is this Israel to which they were liberated? And what about the 100s of 1000s of Palestinians whose lack of status mean nothing at all to that former Mossad chief? Call me confused, but what an absurd community Israel is. Built in large part on the wreckage of an Arab and Muslim society, this society’s identity is always up for grabs, because it is based in large measure on international Jewish citizenship– and Zionists from the U.S., Europe and Israel all have different ideas about what that Jewishness means. And of course Palestinians don’t qualify any more than Christian Russians; but god knows that they were born there… My head is spinning 

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