Author Archives: Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz

About Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.

Russians in Israel

Over a million citizens of the former Soviet Union (FSU) have immigrated to Israel since the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Immigrants from the FSU now make up 15% of the Israeli population, and they have transformed Israeli society.

Most of the immigrants who arrived from the FSU were urban and well-educated. As a result, they have made invaluable contributions to Israeli society, particularly in the cultural, scientific, high-tech, medical, and education fields. One in four staff members at Israel’s universities now are native Russian speakers, with an even higher concentration in the sciences. russian dolls

In Israel’s increasingly heterogeneous society, many Russian-speaking Israelis choose to preserve their language and culture. There are Russian newspapers, television stations, schools, and social media outlets based in Israel.

Immigrants from the FSU have also forced Israel to ask difficult “Who is a Jew?” questions. Under the Law of Return, Israel grants automatic citizenship to anyone who has a Jewish grandparent–even though this includes people who would not be considered Jewish according to the official Israeli rabbinate. As many as a quarter of those who immigrated to Israel from the FSU under the Law of Return are not considered Jewish by Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate.

This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for many Russian-Israelis to be married or buried in Israel–domains which are exclusively controlled by the rabbinate. Israelis today are debating how to respond to this reality. Should the Law of Return be amended to allow only those who are considered Jewish by Orthodox Jewish law? Should these immigrants be encouraged to convert, perhaps by changing the conversion process to make it easier and more inviting? Or perhaps identifying as Jewish, having Jewish ancestry, living in Israel, and serving in the Israeli army should be enough to be part of the Jewish people, without converting? These questions and others continue to divide Israeli society.


Winograd Commission

In the fall of 2006, Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, appointed the Winograd Commission to investigate the events of the Second Lebanon War. The Commission was a response to mounting public criticism of the Israeli government and military’s handling of the war. The Commission, chaired by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, reviewed the relevant material and listened to testimony from key figures including Directorate of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin, Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and Director-General of the Ministry of Defense Gabi Ashkenazi. olmert

On April 30, 2007 the Commission released an Interim Report covering the years 2000-2006–leading up to the war and the first few days of the war. The report included serious criticism of Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. It called the trio out for choosing an immediate and intensive military strike without a detailed, comprehensive, and authorized military plan. It also criticized them for failing to consider a policy of containment, or combining political and diplomatic moves with the military strikes. Though the report did not go so far as to recommend the resignation of any leaders, it eventually led to the resignation of both Peretz and Halutz. Olmert did not step down at that point, but polls showed that 80% of the Israeli public was in favor of his resignation.

The Winograd Commission Final Report was submitted on January 30, 2008. It confirmed the findings of the Interim Report, concluding that the Second Lebanon War was a “serious missed opportunity” that ended “without a clear military victory.” The report found “serious failings” in the government and military’s decision-making, the military’s preparedness for the war, strategic thinking and planning, and defense of the Israeli civilian population. It was particularly critical of the ineffective and poorly planned ground offensive. 

The report accused Olmert of “serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence.” Olmert resigned in July 2008 in response both to the findings of the Winograd Report and corruption charges from earlier in his career.

Second Lebanon War

The Second Lebanon War began on July 12, 2006 when Hezbollah militants crossed the border into Israel and attacked Israeli soldiers patrolling the Lebanese border. Hezbollah simultaneously fired rockets at Israeli border towns as a diversion. The ambush and its aftermath left eight Israeli soldiers dead. Two others were kidnapped

The Israeli government responded with an air-strike targeting Hezbollah positions inside Lebanon, followed by a ground offensive designed to destroy Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah retaliated by firing Katyusha rockets at towns and cities in northern Israel, at a rate of more than 100 rockets per day for the duration of the conflict. The attacks killed 43 Israeli civilians and forced 300,000 Israelis to evacuate to bomb shelters or cities farther south.
On August 12, 2006 the war ended with a United Nations-brokered cease-fire where the Lebanese government agreed to take control of Southern Lebanon from Hezbollah with the help of the United Nations. lebanon war

The results of the Second Lebanon War were not clear cut. On the one hand, Hezbollah was weakened immediately after the war. On the other hand, the United Nations was largely ineffective in fulfilling its mandate, and by 2011 Hezbollah had accumulated four times the number of rockets it possessed in 2006. In the fall of 2006 then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appointed the Winograd Commission to investigate the events of the Second Lebanon War, in response to mounting public criticism of the Israeli government and military’s handling of the war. The public attention after the findings of the commission ended the careers of several military and political personalities in Israel.

Hezbollah remains a powerful force in the region.

•    Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Second Lebanon War

•    Knesset website, Second Lebanese War

•    Jewish Virtual Library, list of links on the War with Hezbollah

•    United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 (August 11, 2006)

•    Michael Oren, Lessons of the Second Lebanon War (available with membership to the Wall Street Journal)

•    It’s time for Jewish dissenters  to challenge Israeli policies, San Jose Mercury News


The Goldstone Report

In April 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) established a fact-finding mission to investigate alleged human rights violations during the Gaza War that took place in December 2008 and January 2009. Richard Goldstone, a South African jurist, headed the mission, and its findings became known as the Goldstone Report. Israel refused to cooperate with the investigation because of the perceived anti-Israel bias of the UNHRC and the mission itself.gaza war

The report, released on September 15, 2009, found evidence that both the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian militants committed serious war crimes, breaches of humanitarian law, and possible crimes against humanity. The report further accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilian populations. The mission recommended that both Israel and the Palestinian authorities launch independent investigations into the war crimes.

The Israeli government rejected the report as flawed and biased, part of a political assault against Israel. The United States also rejected the report as biased, but the United Nations and most of the international community accepted its findings. Following the release of the report, Israel launched its own  independent investigation into the Gaza War.

On April 1, 2011, Goldstone published an article in the Washington Post saying that subsequent investigations by Israel had proven that the I.D.F. did not intentionally target civilians. The other three members of the fact-finding mission rejected Goldstone’s reassessment and stood by the findings of the report.

•    Goldstone Report (the full document)

•    UN’s summary of the Goldstone Report

•    Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Initial Response to the Goldstone Report

•    Richard Goldstone, Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and war crimes, Washington Post, April 2, 2011

•    Statement issued by the other three members of U.N. fact-finding mission to Gaza, in response to Goldstone’s Washington Post article


Mizrahim in Israel

As Israel shifts from a “melting pot” model to one of multiculturalism, Israeli Mizrahim are bringing their once marginalized culture back to the center of Israeli life.

“Mizrahi” is a socio-political term describing Jews from Arab and/or Muslim lands, including Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of the Caucasus. The Ashkenazic establishment in Israel coined the term in the 1950s in response to the large wave of immigrants from Arab countries at that time. The immigrants soon began to use the term to describe themselves as well. “Mizrahi” is distinct from, but often overlaps with, the term, “Sephardi,” and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. 

While “Sephardim” literally means Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, it has expanded to describe Jews from Africa or Asia, or to describe those who follow Sephardic, as opposed to Ashkenazic, religious practice. Following the expulsion from Spain, many Sephardic Jews immigrated to Arab countries, where they blended with the local population, making it difficult to distinguish between Sephardim and native Mizrahim. 
israeli family
Since the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the late 15th century, Sephardim and  Jews from Arab lands (some who had returned to Israel from Babylonia, now Iraq, during the Second Temple period), were the majority of Jews in the land of Israel, and Sephardic religious practice dominated Jewish life. But beginning in the 1880s, Russian, Polish, and German Jews (all considered Ashkenazic Jews) immigrated to Israel in large numbers. 

The Ashkenazim soon became the majority of Jews in Israel, and by 1948 they were 80% of the Jewish population of Israel. Due to their larger numbers, and because modern Zionism, for the most part, originated in Europe, the Ashkenazim became the leaders of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. When Israel declared independence in 1948, Sephardim and Jews from Arab lands were almost entirely absent in positions of leadership.

Mizrahim Return to Israel

Following Independence, as Arab violence forced them to leave their native countries, Mizrahim began to arrive in Israel in huge numbers. The Ashkenazic establishment saw these newcomers as backward “orientals” whose traditions and culture were similar to that of Israel’s enemies, the Arabs, and so Mizrahim were victims of systematic discrimination. Upon arrival in Israel, Mizrahim were sent to transit camps, where living conditions were very difficult. When they moved out of the camps, they were settled in Israel’s least developed neighborhoods.

Liberal Judaism in Israel

Most affiliated Jews in the United States identify as either Conservative or Reform. But in Israel, for a variety of historical and political reasons, the reality is very different.

The Conservative movement in Israel, called the Masorti movement, was founded in 1979 and now includes 50 synagogue congregations and havurot (lay-led prayer and study communities). The movement has 50,000 Israeli affiliates of its congregations and national programs, and roughly 125,000 Israelis participate in their programming yearly. Israel is home to a Masorti kibbutz and a moshav (communal settlement) where many members affiliate with the Masorti movement, and where prayer services, lifecycle events, and communal celebrations are conducted according to Masorti principles. The Masorti movement has a youth movement, Noam, and a rabbinical seminary, the Schechter Institute, which ordains about five rabbis each year.
masorti movement
The Reform movement in Israel, called the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, includes 30 synagogue congregations, two kibbutzim in the south, and one village in the north. Noar Telem is the Reform youth movement. The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem grants degrees and trains Reform rabbis, and like the Schechter Institute, ordains about five rabbis each year.

Reform and Conservative leaders believe that the liberal movements could grow in numbers and influence, but that Israel’s Rabbinate–an Orthodox institution that controls nearly all religious matters in the state–significantly curtails their activities.

Personal Status Issues

For example, the Orthodox Rabbinate has exclusive control over marriage between Jews in Israel, so marriages performed by Reform or Conservative rabbis in Israel are not legally recognized, and there is no option for civil marriage for Jews in Israel. Israelis who wish to marry in a Conservative or Reform ceremony have several options. They can marry in a private Reform or Conservative ceremony in Israel, and have a civil marriage abroad, which is then legally recognized in Israel. Or they can marry abroad in a Reform or Conservative ceremony which will then be recognized in Israel.

Druze in Israel

The Druze in Israel speak Arabic and identify as Arabs, but they are a community distinct from other Arab Israelis, with their own religion and cultural norms.

The Druze see their religion, which broke off from Islam in the 10th century in Egypt, as an interpretation of the three large monotheistic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–and they regard Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed as prophets. The Druze religion has no set rituals and ceremonies, but eating pork, smoking, and drinking alcohol are forbidden. Druze have a strong belief in reincarnation. Druze religious literature is only accessible to a group of religious initiates called the uqqal. The Druze religion is closed to outsiders; they accept no converts. 

Communities in Israel

Today, approximately 800,000 Druze live in Syria, 450,000 in Lebanon, and 120,000 in northern Israel. The Druze people in Israel live in the Carmel region, the Galilee, and the Golan. The Druze in the Carmel and the Galilee are Israeli citizens. Most of the Druze in the Golan are Syrian citizens who hold permanent resident status in Israel.

druze flag

Druze & Israeli Flags

Druze in the Golan mostly identify with Syria, where their families live, and they often visit family and go to school there. But as permanent residents of Israel, they have access to Israeli schools, enjoy municipal services, and are better off economically than their families in Syria. The Golan Druze are distinct from other Druze communities in Israel. The former group is culturally more modern, because of Syrian influence and also because of distance from Druze religious centers in the western Galilee and Lebanon.

The Druze in Israel mostly live in separate Druze villages, though some villages have a mixed population that also includes Muslim and Christian Arabs. The Druze also have a separate educational system, and their religion, recognized by the Israeli government, has its own court system.

Nationalism & Military

Druze mostly do not identify with the cause of Arab nationalism. In the years preceding the founding of the State of Israel, Arab nationalists persecuted the Druze, often violently, while the Jewish leadership strove to develop positive relations with the Druze. In the 1940s, when Muslim Arab nationalists attempted, unsuccessfully, to take over the Druze’s holiest site, Jethro’s tomb, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee, the Druze relationship with Arab nationalists deteriorated further. 

The Kibbutz Movement

Israel’s first kibbutz was Degania, founded in 1909 by a group of young Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They dreamed of working the land and creating a new kind of community, and a new kind of Jew–stronger, more giving, and more rooted in the land.

The community they founded, and the hundreds more kibbutzim that popped up across the country, aimed to realize the Marxist principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” In the early years, kibbutz members worked mostly in agriculture. Instead of earning individual incomes for their labor, all money and assets on the kibbutz were managed collectively. In keeping with the ideal of total economic equality, kibbutz members ate together in a communal dining hall, wore the same kibbutz clothing (and had them washed at the kibbutz laundry), and shared responsibility for child-rearing, education, cultural programs, and other social services.

kibbutz gan shmuel

Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, 1950

By 1950, two years after the establishment of the state, 67,000 Israelis lived on kibbutzim, making up 7.5% of the country’s population. At this time, kibbutzim played a key role not only in Israel’s agricultural development, but also in its defense and political leadership. Early kibbutzim were often placed strategically along the country’s borders and outlying areas in order to help in the defense of the country. Many of the country’s top politicians and leaders in military and industry, particularly in the 1950s and 60s, came from the kibbutz movement.

Economic Crisis & Abatement

The kibbutz movement continued to thrive both economically and socially through the 1960s and 70s. In 1989, the population of Israel’s kibbutzim reached its height at 129,000 people living on 270 kibbutzim, about 2% of Israel’s population.

But high inflation and interest rates led to economic crisis for many kibbutzim. In the 1980s and 90s, many kibbutzim declared bankruptcy and thousands of kibbutz members defected. In keeping with an increasing trend of individualism in Israel and world-wide, these former kibbutz members sought new opportunities in Israeli cities, and some left Israel altogether.

The Law of Return

“The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews and the ingathering of exiles from all countries of their dispersion,” asserts Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The 1950 Law of Return codified this mission to gather Jews from around the world by granting them the right to settle in Israel and gain automatic citizenship.

Jews & Arabs

One of the major goals of the Law of Return is to ensure a Jewish majority in Israel. Today, over 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab, and this number could continue to rise. The Law of Return offsets the high Arab birth rate by enabling the naturalization of thousands of Jewish immigrants to Israel each year.
law of return laws
However, critics argue that because the Law of Return favors Jews it is undemocratic and, according to a more extreme position, racist, and must be replaced with a more egalitarian immigration policy. 

Many pro-Palestinian advocates criticize the Law of Return as discriminatory, because Israel does not grant a similar right of return to Palestinian refugees who wish to return to their former homes in Israel, after being displaced in the 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six-Day War. Today, the number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants is estimated to exceed four million. Many Israelis worry that granting the Palestinian right of return would lead to an Arab majority in Israel and the eventual dissolution of the Jewish state. The right of return has been a contentious topic of negotiation in the Israeli-Arab peace talks.

Who Is a Jew?

There are also disputes concerning who exactly is included in the Law of Return, since the 1950 law did not define who is a Jew for the purposes of immigration. 

The first major challenge to the law came in 1962 with the Brother Daniel case. Brother Daniel, born Oswald Rufeisen, was a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism during the Holocaust. He later became a Carmelite monk, and in this position saved many Jews during the Holocaust. When Brother Daniel applied to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that he was ineligible because the Law of Return does not include Jews who practice another religion.

Civil Marriage in Israel

Diana Mirtsin and Alexander Skudalo, Israeli citizens who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, live together, with their baby, in Tel Aviv. Very much in love, they would like to marry–but they cannot make it official in Israel. This is because the Israeli rabbinate does not recognize Alexander as Jewish, because although his father is Jewish, his mother is not Jewish. Diana points out the irony in their frustrating family situation: “If there is a war tomorrow, he’ll be Jewish enough to fight for Israel. But he’s not Jewish enough to marry here.”

According to the country’s law, marriages in Israel are performed by sanctioned religious authorities–be they Muslim, Jewish, Druze, or Christian.
wedding jewish
Within Israel, only the Israeli rabbinate can marry Jewish couples. And the Israeli rabbinate is an exclusively Orthodox institution, so it insists that the marriages its rabbis perform be subject to the strictures of traditional halakhah (Jewish law).

Because of this policy, a significant portion of the Israeli population, like Alexander Skudalo, cannot marry in Israel. The Law of Return grants anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, and his or her spouse, the right to immigrate to and settle in Israel and gain automatic citizenship. But the Israeli rabbinate will only perform the marriage of a person defined as Jewish by Orthodox halakhah–in other words, someone born to a Jewish mother or converted through the Orthodox rabbinate. 

As a result, thousands of immigrants admitted to Israel under the Law of Return cannot marry in Israel, because the Israeli rabbinate does not recognize them as Jewish. Since these people are also not affiliated with any other religion, no other religious authority can marry them. In 2009, there were over 300,000 Israelis, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who were not recognized as Jewish by Israel’s rabbinate, and who had no other religious affiliation. This group includes people whose mother is not Jewish, as determined by the rabbinate, but might have a Jewish grandparent or Jewish father, and might be considered Jewish by other standards.

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