Rab­bini­cal Courts rapidly adding names to mar­i­tal black­lists

Jerusalem Post - - FRONT PAGE - • By JEREMY SHARON

The Chief Rab­binate is adding hun­dreds of peo­ple ev­ery year to two black­lists of cit­i­zens that will pre­vent them, their chil­dren and their ma­ter­nal rel­a­tives from ever mar­ry­ing in Is­rael, newly avail­able data show.

There were 6,787 peo­ple on these lists as of May 2017, with the num­ber in­creas­ing ev­ery year, ac­cord­ing to the data ob­tained by the ITIM re­li­gious ser­vices ad­vi­sory and lob­by­ing group through a free­dom of in­for­ma­tion or­der to the Rab­bini­cal Courts Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

These grow­ing black­lists have cre­ated heartache for cit­i­zens who iden­tify as and be­lieve them­selves to be Jews, and have gen­er­ated con­cern that the Chief Rab­binate and Rab­bini­cal Courts are deep­en­ing so­ci­etal fis­sures in the coun­try.

The in­creas­ing num­ber of cit­i­zens be­ing added to these black­lists ap­pears to stem from an in­creas­ingly rigid ap­proach by the rab­binate and the Rab­bini­cal Courts as to how to de­ter­mine a per­son’s Jewish sta­tus, par­tic­u­larly re­gard­ing cit­i­zens from the for­mer Soviet Union.

The Rab­bini­cal Courts Ad­min­is­tra­tion, how­ever, re­jects ITIM’s claim that it is be­ing overly rigid in its ap­proach, and ar­gues that when it dis­cov­ers that a per­son is not Jewish or might not be Jewish it has a re­li­gious and moral obli­ga­tion to pre­vent him or her from mar­ry­ing Jewish cit­i­zens.

One of­fi­cial of the Rab­bini­cal Courts also noted that the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple ITIM has high­lighted who are be­ing added to the black­lists have been de­ter­mined to be defini­tively not Jewish, and that only a small mi­nor­ity might ac­tu­ally be Jewish but un­able to prove it.

In prac­ti­cal terms, the process be­gins when a mem­ber of the public ap­proaches the rab­binate or re­li­gious courts to regis­ter for mar­riage, or some­times to be­gin

di­vorce pro­ceed­ings.

When reg­is­ter­ing for mar­riage, cit­i­zens, es­pe­cially those from the for­mer Soviet Union, are fre­quently re­ferred to the Rab­bini­cal Courts to con­duct a Jewish-sta­tus clar­i­fi­ca­tion process in which in­ves­ti­ga­tors ex­am­ine their doc­u­men­ta­tion and other ev­i­dence of their Jewish sta­tus.

In the last six years, in­creas­ing num­bers of peo­ple have ei­ther been un­able to sat­is­fac­to­rily prove their Jewish sta­tus to the Rab­bini­cal Courts and are placed on the “Re­quires Jewish Sta­tus Clar­i­fi­ca­tion” list, or have been de­ter­mined out­right to be non-Jewish and are placed on the “Pre­vented from Mar­ry­ing” list.

If peo­ple are on the Pre­vented from Mar­ry­ing list, nei­ther they nor their chil­dren will ever be able to get mar­ried in Is­rael. If peo­ple are put on the Re­quires Jewish Sta­tus Clar­i­fi­ca­tion list, it means they were un­able to con­vince the in­ves­ti­ga­tor of their Jewish­ness, and also, in all like­li­hood, will never be able to marry in Is­rael.

There has been a 100% in­crease in the num­ber of cit­i­zens on the Re­quires Clar­i­fi­ca­tion list and a 450% surge in the num­ber of peo­ple re­jected as non-Jews by the Rab­bini­cal Courts from 2011 and 2016, ac­cord­ing to the Rab­bini­cal Court fig­ures ob­tained by ITIM.

Not only are these peo­ple put on the black­list, how­ever, so too are all of their ma­ter­nal rel­a­tives, in­clud­ing chil­dren, sib­lings, cousins, aunts and un­cles.

Un­til last De­cem­ber, these rel­a­tives would be sum­mar­ily added to the Re­quires Clar­i­fi­ca­tion list while be­ing in­formed that they could come to the Rab­bini­cal Court if they so wished to con­test the rul­ing.

In some cases, more than 10 peo­ple have been added to the black­lists af­ter a ma­ter­nal rel­a­tive’s Jewish clar­i­fi­ca­tion ended with a re­jec­tion.

What makes the sit­u­a­tion even more ex­tra­or­di­nary is that some of those who have been added to the list al­ready have been mar­ried through the Chief Rab­binate, mean­ing that state mar­riage reg­is­trars and rab­bis in the past have deemed them to be Jews.

ITIM be­gan to re­ceive calls from cit­i­zens who were added to these black­lists in 2014 and says the prob­lem has be­come steadily worse.

The group has now filed a pe­ti­tion to the High Court of Jus­tice to halt the prac­tice of the Rab­bini­cal Courts of ini­ti­at­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the Jewish sta­tus of cit­i­zens who have not re­quested them.

In one re­cent case dealt with by the or­ga­ni­za­tion, four mem­bers of one ex­tended fam­ily were placed on the rab­binate’s black­list af­ter a ma­ter­nal cousin sought to regis­ter for mar­riage but whose proof of Jewish iden­tity was re­jected by the Rab­bini­cal Courts in­ves­ti­ga­tor.

Three of these fam­ily mem­bers had pre­vi­ously mar­ried in Is­rael through the Chief Rab­binate, mean­ing their Jewish sta­tus al­ready had been ap­proved by mar­riage reg­is­trars and rab­binate of­fi­cials.

The cousin who sought to regis­ter for mar­riage pre­sented his orig­i­nal Ukrainian birth cer­tifi­cate, which gave his na­tion­al­ity as Jewish, to the Rab­bini­cal Courts, but the in­ves­ti­ga­tor was sus­pi­cious of his sta­tus and sent the doc­u­ment to be pro­fes­sion­ally ex­am­ined to de­ter­mine whether it was fraud­u­lent. The re­sults showed that the doc­u­ment was an orig­i­nal and gen­uine Ukrainian birth cer­tifi­cate.

Not sat­is­fied, the in­ves­ti­ga­tor sought out the orig­i­nal birth cer­tifi­cate of the man’s grand­mother and dis­cov­ered that it listed her mother as Belorus­sian and as mar­ried to a non-Jewish Belorus­sian man.

In light of this, the in­ves­ti­ga­tor de­cided to place the man in ques­tion on the black­list, along with his cousin and two aunts, and their var­i­ous ma­ter­nal rel­a­tives. He took this step, de­spite the fact that the two aunts and an un­cle all had orig­i­nal Soviet-era doc­u­men­ta­tion list­ing them as Jewish, and de­spite the fact that it would have been strange for three gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple to con­tinue to be listed as Jewish if this was not in fact the case.

None­the­less, from just one case, 12 cit­i­zens were put on the rab­binate’s black­list, ban­ning them from ever mar­ry­ing in Is­rael.

ITIM of­fi­cials ar­gue that there could be nu­mer­ous rea­sons why the great-grand­mother was listed as Belorus­sian in­stead of Jewish, point­ing out that Soviet doc­u­men­ta­tion only ever listed one na­tion­al­ity, mean­ing the great-grand­mother could have been both Belorus­sian and Jewish.

ITIM at­tor­ney Elad Ca­plan points out that it was pos­si­ble the Soviet clerk reg­is­ter­ing the great-grand­mother when she moved from Belorus­sia to the Ukraine in the early 20th cen­tury may have spo­ken only with her non-Jewish hus­band.

Equally pos­si­ble is that the clerk was bribed to ob­scure the great-grand­mother’s iden­tity, or that the clerk sim­ply wrote down only one of her two na­tional iden­ti­ties since Soviet doc­u­men­ta­tion only al­lowed for one na­tion­al­ity to be reg­is­tered.

Ca­plan also ar­gues that it would be un­fath­omable as to why the aunts and cousins of the man in ques­tion would have been given Jewish na­tion­al­ity sta­tus in their orig­i­nal doc­u­men­ta­tion if they were not in fact Jews.

ITIM di­rec­tor Rabbi Seth Far­ber points to the de­ter­mi­na­tion made by the cen­tral cod­i­fi­ca­tion of Jewish law, the Shul­han Aruch, re­gard­ing Jewish sta­tus as proof that it is the Chief Rab­binate that is de­vi­at­ing from nor­ma­tive Jewish prac­tice in cast­ing as­per­sions on the iden­tity of thou­sands of Is­raeli cit­i­zens.

“The Shul­han Aruch says clearly, ‘All fam­i­lies have a pre­sump­tion of be­ing kosher and one can marry with them a pri­ori,’ and then ex­plic­itly states that any­one who ha­bit­u­ally ques­tions the Jewish iden­tity of oth­ers is him­self sus­pect,” cites Far­ber.

In­deed, the Shul­han Aruch states: “Any­one who al­ways dis­qual­i­fies oth­ers, for ex­am­ple, if he vil­i­fies other fam­i­lies or in­di­vid­u­als and says they are illegitimate, we sus­pect that he is illegitimate. If he says there are slaves, we sus­pect him of be­ing a slave, for every­one who dis­qual­i­fies does so on the ba­sis of his own blem­ish.”

Need­less to say, Rabbi Eliyahu Mai­mon, head of the Per­sonal Sta­tus and Jewish Clar­i­fi­ca­tion Depart­ment of the Rab­bini­cal Courts Ad­min­is­tra­tion, sees things dif­fer­ently, start­ing out by wryly ob­serv­ing that the rab­bini­cal judges of the courts are also fa­mil­iar with the Shul­han Aruch’s de­ter­mi­na­tions on these is­sues.

Most im­por­tant, he says he can­not ig­nore facts when they be­come re­vealed.

“If there’s some­one in front of me who I dis­cover isn’t Jewish, you have to tell him this. It’s not fair and not log­i­cal to not tell him he’s not Jewish,” says Mai­mon.

He also in­sists that the Rab­bini­cal Courts do not ac­tively search out peo­ple who might not be Jews, say­ing it is only when a per­son’s rel­a­tive seeks to regis­ter for mar­riage and prob­lems are dis­cov­ered with his or her Jewish sta­tus that ad­di­tional in­quiries are opened.

Mai­mon also in­sists that his depart­ment’s in­ves­ti­ga­tions are pro­fes­sional, ex­haus­tive and car­ried out by ex­perts in the field who travel to the rel­e­vant coun­tries and make use of na­tional ar­chives to track down and ver­ify Soviet era doc­u­men­ta­tion.

Asked how it is pos­si­ble that rab­binate of­fi­cials have in the past ap­proved some­one’s Jewish sta­tus for mar­riage while present-day of­fi­cials re­voke that same sta­tus, Mai­mon says the depart­ment has “de­vel­oped new tools” to more thor­oughly in­ves­ti­gate the his­tor­i­cal record.

“We can’t say we’re go­ing to close our eyes and say these tools don’t ex­ist. These tools ex­ist and we need to use them,” says Mai­mon.

“Jewish law goes from the per­spec­tive of the cur­rent re­al­ity. You need to act within your gen­er­a­tion in ac­cor­dance with your facts. What was done 50 years ago was done fine, and we’re not check­ing up on them. What they ruled, they ruled.

“When fam­ily mem­bers be­come in­volved be­cause of a rel­a­tive who had a Jewish clar­i­fi­ca­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion and it be­comes clear he’s not Jewish, and those oth­ers who were de­ter­mined to be Jewish aren’t Jewish, then there was a mis­take! Can we say, ‘Okay, we’re not go­ing to look at the mis­take?’”

Nev­er­the­less, ITIM’s Far­ber in­sists that the prac­tices of the Rab­bini­cal Courts are en­dan­ger­ing the rights of more than a mil­lion Is­raeli cit­i­zens who came from the for­mer Soviet Union and now find their Jewish sta­tus un­der se­vere doubt. •

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