Rise in Soviet migration to Israel revives debate over Jewishness

April 04, 1991|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- Immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union reached a total of almost 15,000 last month and will climb to 25,000 this month, according to the head of the agency that organizes immigrants' preparation and transport.

"To our delight, immigration is rising again to pre-gulf war levels," the official, Simcha Dinitz, head of the Jewish Agency and former ambassador to the United States, said in an interview Tuesday.

He said the expectation of 25,000 arrivals this month was based on applications and on the fact that the daily line of visa-seekers at the Israeli Consulate in Moscow had bounced back to the peak of 1,200 that preceded the Persian Gulf war.

Mr. Dinitz said his agency's estimate, with which the Interior Ministry concurs, is that about 5 percent of the total number of Soviet immigrants were non-Jews, most of them spouses or children of Jews.

This contrasts with statements by the immigrant absorption minister, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, that about 30 percent of arrivals from the Soviet Union were non-Jews.

Mr. Dinitz said that Rabbi Peretz, whose department organizes the integration of immigrants into Israel, may apply "criteria that are more severe than the normal ones" to determine if a person is Jewish.

The allegation by Rabbi Peretz, who was elected on behalf of Shas, a religious party that draws its strength from the Sephardim, the Middle Eastern and North African Jews, was first made last July during a parliamentary debate on a proposed tightening of the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to all Jews who ask for it.

At that time, Rabbi Peretz said that if the law were not modified, "5 million non-kosher Jews" would enter Israel.

The minister's views caused dismay across the political spectrum, as well as among Soviet immigrants, who fear that his objections might discourage the inflow of Soviet Jews. As a result, Likud, the governing party of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, prevailed on the bill's sponsor, Michael Kleiner, to withdraw it.

Mr. Dinitz declined to comment on possible political motivation of Rabbi Peretz's objections. But a senior official of the agency said that the absorption minister's criticism reflected growing concern among what he called the "Orthodox establishment" that Soviet immigration, which approached 200,000 last year and might reach 300,000 this year, might change the political balance of the nation to the detriment of the four religious parties.

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