Israel: Treatment of immigrants from the former Soviet Union; state protection and response of government authorities, including the Office of the Ombudsman; services and response of NGOs (2011-March 2014) [ISR104781.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa

1. Overview

Sources indicate that there are approximately one million immigrants who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union (FSU) since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (IRAC n.d.; Shatil n.d.; JTA 30 Dec. 2013). According to Haaretz, there were approximately 836,000 FSU immigrants who came to Israel between 1990 and 1999 and 161,000 who came between 2000 and 2009 (1 Sept. 2013). Sources indicate that immigrants from the FSU and their descendants comprise approximately 20 percent of the Israeli population (JTA 30 Dec. 2013; Israel 5 Mar. 2014). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, the Director of Israel's Office of the Ombudsman indicated that the FSU immigrant population is "heterogeneous" and comes from different areas, including Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, the Caucasus, and others (ibid.).

Israel's Law of Return defines a Jew as "a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion" (Israel 1950, Sec. 4b). Under the Law of Return, the right to return to Israel is given to every Jew, including the child of a Jew, the grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew, the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew but not "a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion" (Israel 1950, Sec. 4a).

The Economist explains that being Jewish according to halacha (Jewish religious law) is defined as having a Jewish mother or converting to Judaism in accordance with halacha (10 Jan. 2014). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), an organization that develops services for "Israel's most needy populations," who served as the Director of the JDC's Immigration Integration Division in Israel from 1997-2013, said that people not considered Jewish under Jewish law include children of a non-Jewish mother, grandchildren of Jews, or non-Jewish spouses of Jews, although these people are eligible to go to Israel under the Law of Return (JDC 4 Mar. 2014). Sources indicate that approximately 30 percent of Israeli citizens from the FSU are not considered Jewish according to halacha (IRAC n.d.; Coalition Against Racism in Israel 26 Feb. 2012). Because they are not recognized as Jewish by the religious community, these people face problems related to personal status laws, such as marriage (IRAC n.d.; Coalition Against Racism in Israel 26 Feb. 2012; JDC 4 Mar. 2014; The Economist 10 Jan. 2014), burial (JDC 4 Mar. 2014; Coalition Against Racism in Israel 26 Feb. 2012; The Economist 10 Jan. 2014), divorce (ibid.) and family reunification (Coalition Against Racism in Israel 26 Feb. 2012).

According to the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), a Jerusalem-based NGO that provides pro-bono legal services to FSU immigrants, some FSU immigrants undergo the Orthodox conversion process in order to obtain "undisputed Jewish status," but sometimes "ultra-Orthodox" rabbis revoke the conversions if the person does not practice Orthodox Judaism (IRAC n.d.). According to an article published by the Coalition Against Racism in Israel, which was written by a rabbi affiliated with Morashtenu (Our Heritage--The Charter for Democracy), an NGO that promotes the involvement of Russian speakers into Israeli civil society (Morashtenu n.d.b.), the Orthodox religious authorities exclusively control the process of conversions to Judaism and converts face multiple "difficulties and obstacles" when trying to convert (Coalition Against Racism in Israel 26 Feb. 2012).

2. Treatment

Sources indicate that FSU immigrants have faced challenges adapting to life in Israel (Shatil n.d.; IRAC n.d.). According to IRAC, these challenges include difficulties learning Hebrew, unemployment and underemployment (ibid.). Shatil, the New Israel Fund's Initiative for Social Change, which promotes immigrant rights among other issues, states that the difficulties include "an education system ill-equipped to meet their needs, a job market that does not appreciate their skills and a dearth of affordable housing" (Shatil n.d.).

Regarding cases of discrimination against FSU immigrants, the Director of the Office of the Ombudsman said

The main points of encounter between the immigrants and veteran Israelis are in the workplace, in the vicinity of their homes, in the institutions for education and in the army. It is at these points of friction that complaints of discrimination and injustice are likely to arise. Since about a third of the immigrants are not Jewish and the majority is secular, the immigrants are likely to complain, amongst other things, about the discrimination on the part of the religious establishment which is involved in Israel in matters of marriage and divorce. (Israel 5 Mar. 2014)

The US Department of State's International Religious Freedom Report for 2012 indicates that there is governmental and legal discrimination against non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews, as well as "strained" relations between secular and religious Jews and between Jews and non-Jews, but does not provide specific information about treatment of Jews from the FSU (20 May 2013, 1).

According to IRAC, the majority of legal cases for FSU immigrants involve problems with the Ministry of Interior, such as proving Jewish status and conversions, and supporting immigrants' right to family (n.d.).

Some sources indicate that Russian-speakers have been subject to "racism" in Israel (Morashtenu n.d.a; Coalition Against Racism in Israel 21 Mar. 2013). In the 2013 annual report of the Coalition Against Racism in Israel, which collected, reviewed, and documented racist incidents between March 2012 and February 2013, 18 incidents of racism against Russian-speakers were reported, including: two cases in the category of "incitement by elected representatives and public leaders;" one case in the category of "cases of racism in government institutions, private businesses, and public, and private organizations;" one case in the category of "cases of racism in educational institutions;" and 14 other cases, which were recorded by the NGO Morashtenu (Coalition Against Racism in Israel 21 Mar. 2013). Details of these cases could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

A Russian immigrant interviewed by Haaretz, who subsequently returned to Russia because of better business opportunities in Moscow, said that Russians in Israel face "stigma" and that he faced difficulties finding an apartment to rent because he was an immigrant from Russia (21 Feb. 2014).

Morashtenu states that immigrants from the FSU

did not become [an] integral part of the Israeli society as a whole and of the civil society in particular. Such a condition prevails also today. The Russian-speaking community in Israel has grown and consolidated but did not secure an active and adequate role in political and public life of the country. (n.d.b)

In contrast, other sources indicate that conditions for FSU immigrants have been improving (JDC 4 Mar. 2014; JTA 30 Dec. 2013). The JDC representative said that there is "little racism" towards Jewish immigrants in Israel and that FSU immigrants "have largely integrated well and showed significant social and economic upward mobility ever since the mass migration of the 1990s" (4 Mar. 2014). Similarly, a news article published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reports that, "[t]hough many Soviet immigrants, especially the older ones, still face poverty and significant cultural barriers, overall statistics show a community on the rise" (JTA 30 Dec. 2013). The JTA reports that, according to a report by the Israeli social policy think tank Adva Center, while 56 percent of Russian immigrants were in the poorest third of Israeli society in 1992, the percentage decreased to 38 percent by 2010; Russian immigrants in the top third of Israeli society increased from 10 percent in 1992 to 27 percent in 2010 (ibid.). According to the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who himself originates from the former Soviet Union, FSU immigrants have had "huge success" adapting to life in Israel in comparison to immigrant communities in other countries, and have been particular successful in the military, and the fields of science and medicine (qtd. in ibid.). According to a study by economists at the College of Management Academic Studies, as reported by Haaretz, the average wages of immigrants from the FSU are close to those of native-born Israeli Jews, and approximately 41 percent higher on average than the wages of Israeli Arabs and Ethiopian immigrants (17 Dec. 2012).

Some sources indicate that FSU immigrants are well-represented in politics (JDC 4 Mar. 2014; JTA 30 Dec. 2013). According to the JTA article, there are two Russian-speaking ministers and one deputy minister in the governing coalition, and a political party with a primarily Russian constituency won 15 seats in the Knesset [Israel's parliament which has a total of 120 seats] in the 2009 election (ibid.).

3. State Protection
3.1 State Protection Against Discrimination

Regarding state protection against discrimination, the JDC representative said

Israel has broad anti-discrimination laws that prohibit discrimination by both government and nongovernment entities on the basis of race, religion, and political beliefs, and prohibits incitement to racism. The Israeli government and many groups within Israel have undertaken efforts to combat racism. (JDC 4 Mar. 2014)

According to the Director of the Office of the Ombudsman, in addition to the work of their institution, other state bodies that can address individual complaints of discrimination towards new immigrants include

the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which also deals with complaints of discrimination on grounds of race, the courts and labour tribunals, as well as those in charge of public complaints in government or municipal bodies, in so far as the complaints concern discrimination or injustice by employees of those bodies. Furthermore, the Police should deal with complaints of violence against immigrants as against any other citizen. (Israel 5 Mar. 2014)

3.2 Ombudsman Office

According to their annual report for 2011, the Ombudsman Office in Israel investigates complaints against government ministries, local authorities, municipal bodies, and other public bodies (Israel Dec. 2012, 20). The Ombudsman reportedly received 15,000 complaints in 2011, more than in any previous year (ibid.). The Ombudsman has offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nazareth, Upper Nazareth, Beer Sheba, and Lod and employs 75 attorneys and one social worker (ibid., 17). There are several Russian speakers among the Ombudsman staff (ibid.), including in the regional offices in Beer Sheba, Nazareth-Upper Nazereth, Lod (ibid., 24, 26, 30). According to the 2011 annual report, 45 percent of requests and complaints from the Beer Sheba office were from new immigrants from the FSU (ibid., 25). In Nazareth, requests and complaints from new immigrants accounted for 7 percent of complaints; in Upper Nazareth 75 percent of complaints (ibid., 27), in Haifa 9 percent of complaints (ibid., 28); and in Lod 16 percent of complaints (ibid., 30). The Ombudsman's 2011 report mentions that a guidebook about entitlements for handicapped people to receive public housing was available only in Hebrew, but was translated into Russian following the advice of the Ombudsman Office (ibid., 102). The Ombudsman has also carried out public-information activities towards Russian-speaking immigrants (ibid., 26; ibid. 5 Mar. 2014).

The Director of the Office of the Ombudsman said that their office

receives many complaints from immigrants on various issues relating to their absorption into the country: housing issues (finding housing solutions in Public Housing, assistance in purchasing an apartment or paying rent); eligibility for benefits and pensions or failure to receive benefits to which immigrants are entitled; employment placement; education and welfare issues, etc. However, we have no recollection of complaints concerning discrimination and injustice on grounds of the complainants being new immigrants, nor of complaints of violence towards complainants on grounds of their being immigrants from the FSU. (ibid.)

3.3 State Support Services

The Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption is the government department that provides assistance to new immigrants and helps facilitate their full integration (ibid. n.d.c). The Ministry also cooperates with other government ministries and makes agreements with other organizations to provide services to new immigrants (ibid.).

The Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption operates a 24-hour telephone hotline answering questions concerning the rights of new immigrants (ibid. n.d.a). The hotline is serviced in three languages--Hebrew, English and Russian--and offers referrals to professional organizations dealing with issues such as employment, religion, services for women and children, and education, among others (ibid. n.d.a).

Another service provided by the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption is access to a personal absorption counselor who speaks the immigrant's language and offers advice and guidance regarding authorities, school and employment (ibid. n.d.b).

The Ministry of Aliyah and Immigration Absorption also publishes guides and other materials to assist new immigrants (ibid. n.d.d). For example, the Ministry produces a guide called Where to Turn, which lists government ministries, public organizations, and non-profit and volunteer organizations, including their contact information (ibid.). Where to Turn is over 200 pages and includes categories such as emergencies, the government, citizen's rights, consumerism, education, employment, the environment, health, housing, the military, new immigrants, and social services (ibid. 2013). These guides are available in Hebrew, English and Russian (ibid. n.d.d).

The JDC representative noted that during the first years following immigration, immigrants from the FSU are "entitled to a wide range of assistance measures" including affirmative action in the workplace and special assistance to immigrant children to subsidize their studies at university (4 Mar. 2014).

The Director of the Office of the Ombudsman said that, in addition to the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, other government ministries that provide assistance to new immigrants include the Ministry of Construction and Housing, the Employment Service, the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces], the National Insurance Institute, which provides specific benefits to immigrants in addition to benefits for the unemployed, disabled and elderly, as well as local governmental authorities (Israel 5 Mar. 2014). He noted that all immigrants are entitled to an "'Absorption Basket,'" tax benefits, educational assistance and other benefits (ibid.).

According to Haaretz, there is a unit of the Prime Minister's Office called Nativ, which fosters immigration to Israel from the FSU, and employs 400 people in Israel and 11 offices overseas (Haaretz 1 Sept. 2013). The same source notes that the State Comptroller faulted this unit for "budget inconsistencies, waste," and "poor coordination" (ibid.). According to Haaretz, there are multiple governmental agencies and NGOs that work with potential immigrants from the FSU, and that the government does not have "a mechanism for coordinating between them" (ibid.).

4. Services Provided by NGOs

Several NGOs provide services for FSU immigrants (Israel 2013, 7; JDC 4 Mar. 2014; Jewish Agency n.d.b.). For example, in partnership with the Ministries of Absorption, Housing, Social Affairs and Social Services and Education, the JDC provides a range of services to FSU immigrants including "community building, employment, strengthening the family unit, Hebrew language education, and economic and social initiatives for immigrant youth and young adults" (JDC 4 Mar. 2014).

The JDC's Center for International Migration and Integration, in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), provides reintegration services for immigrants from the FSU who apply for asylum outside Israel and are refused, including "temporary accommodation, micro-business assistance, education, medical assistance, employment assistance, and material assistance" (ibid.).

The Jewish Agency for Israel provides services to FSU immigrants (Haaretz 1 Sept. 2013). Described on their website as a global organization that was "instrumental" to the founding of Israel and "the main link" between Israel and Jewish communities abroad (Jewish Agency n.d.a), they provide services to new immigrants to Israel such as Absorption Centers, which provide low-cost temporary housing and Hebrew instruction (ibid. n.d.b) and a mentoring program, in which volunteers answer a new immigrant's questions in their native language (ibid. n.d.d). The Jewish Agency for Israel began in 1929 and operates under the promise "to bring any Jew, from anywhere in the world, to safety in Israel" (ibid. n.d.c). According to its website, it has facilitated the immigration of more than three million Jews to Israel, including those from the FSU (ibid.).

The NGO Shatil launched its "Initiative to Assist Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union," which has provided support through "workshops, direct consultations and proactive outreach" with the FSU immigrant community (Shatil n.d.).

Dozens of NGOs that provide services to new immigrants can be found in in the previously mentioned Where to Turn publication of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption (Israel 2013). This publication also lists the contact information of several academic institutions that have pro-bono or low-fee legal clinics to new immigrants (ibid., 53-54).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

References

Coalition Against Racism in Israel. 21 March 2013. "The Main Findings of the 2013 Racism in Israel Report." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

_____. 26 February 2012. Rabbi Michael Rivkin. "The Russian Community. . . A Dual Role In Israels Racist Reality." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

_____. N.d. "Introduction to the Coalition Against Racism." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

The Economist. 10 January 2014. "Jewishness: Who is a Jew?" (Factiva)

Haaretz. 1 September 2013. Ofer Aderet. "Aliyah Organization Sending Mixed Messages to Russian Jews: Come, or Stay There." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

_____. 21 February 2014. Ofer Matan. "Russian-born Israelis Chase Capitalist Dreams to Moscow." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

_____. 17 December 2012. Hila Weissberg. "Study: Yawning Wage Gaps Point to Deep Discrimination in Israel's Labor Market." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

Israel. 5 March 2014. Office of the State Comptroller and Ombudsman. Correspondence from the Director of the Office of the Ombudsman to the Research Directorate.

_____. 2013. Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. Where to Turn, Fourth Edition. [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

_____. December 2012. Office of the State Comptroller and Ombudsman. The Ombudsman Annual Reports 37 and 38 for 2010 and 2011. < [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

_____. 1950. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Law of Return 5710-1950. [Accessed 5 Mar. 2014]

_____. N.d.a. Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption. "The Telephone Information System." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

_____. N.d.b. Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption. "The Personal Absorption Counselor." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

_____. N.d.c. Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption. "Areas of Activity." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

_____. N.d.d. Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption. "First Steps." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC). N.d. "Jewish Immigration from the Former Soviet Union." [Accessed 24 Feb. 2014]

JDC--American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. 4 March 2014. Correspondence from the former Director of the Immigrant Integration Division in Israel.

Jewish Agency of Israel. N.d.a. "About Us." [Accessed 6 Mar. 2014]

_____. N.d.b. "Absorption Centers." [Accessed 18 Feb. 2014]

_____. N.d.c. "Aliyah of Rescue." [Accessed 18 Feb. 2014]

_____. N.d.d. "At Home Together." [Accessed 18 Feb. 2014]

Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). 30 December 2013. Ben Sales. "Two Decades On, Russian Immigrants a Rare Case of Successful Aliyah." [Accessed 18 Feb. 2014]

Morashtenu (Our Heritage--the Charter for Democracy). N.d.a "Fight Against Racism." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

_____. N.d.b "About Morashtenu." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

Shatil. N.d. "Immigrant Communities." [Accessed 25 Feb. 2014]

United States (US). 20 May 2013. "Israel and the Occupied Territories." International Religious Freedom Report for 2012. [Accessed 10 Mar. 2014]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: Attempts to reach representatives of the following organizations were unsuccessful within the time constraints of this Response: Coalition Against Racism in Israel; Morashtenu; Shatil.

Internet sites, including: Adva Center; Amnesty International; ecoi.net; Freedom House; Hillel; Human Rights Watch; Israel – Ministry of Public Security; Police, Prime Minister's Office; Israel Democracy Institute; Minority Rights Group International; New Israel Fund; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; Times of Israel; UN – Refworld, ReliefWeb.