Information on the civil rights of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union [ISR25800.E]

The following information was provided during an interview held in Tel Aviv on 27 May 1996 with the Legal Counsellor of the Israel Religions Action Centre (IRAC).

Problems for New Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union

There are four IRAC branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba which assist new immigrants. Each month the IRAC receives about 350 requests from new immigrants (Jews and Non-Jews) who require assistance in all spheres from problems with the authorities — the Ministry of the Interior, the Adoption Ministry, the Health Ministry, Social Security — to other issues that they face as new immigrants. On another level they come with problems regarding personal status such as marriage and divorce, and problems in the workplace such as discrimination and abuse by employers who, believing they do not know their rights, pay them less than they are entitled to. There are also problems in the housing field with older Israelis who, according to new immigrants, try to take advantage because the new immigrants who do not know the established system. These are the three main fields where the organization actually gives legal assistance rather than just advice. Other issues are not dealt with because they are beyond the field of expertise of the organization or they are problems that are not solely due to the fact that they are new immigrants.

The problems with the Ministry of the Interior are twofold. First is acquiring citizenship, either by proving Jewishness or by proving that they are married to a Jew, or the grandchild of a Jew. The Ministry of the Interior monitors the validity of mixed marriages by not automatically granting citizenship to the non-Jewish spouse. The Ministry assumes that all such claims are fictitious without first checking the marriage's validity. During the verification period the non-Jewish spouse is a temporary resident. This status causes a lot of problems because, as a temporary resident, they are actually tourists with a working visa; they cannot study Hebrew or get social security. Health care is much more expensive. The monitoring of marriages is not just applied to new immigrants coming in with a non-Jewish partner, it also cover non-Jewish Russians who are here as tourists and who marry Israelis. In the last six to eight months, Israeli embassies no longer give these couples Oleh visa. The embassies are only prepared to give them a tourist visa and tell them to make the final arrangements in Israel. Jewish individuals do not have problems, they are given citizenship. A non-Jew who has been married to a Jew for less than two years is issued a tourist visa. The Jewish spouse receives an Oleh visa while the partner gets a tourist visa. Most of these couples want to remain in Israel. However, in several cases the couples admit that their marriage was fictitious and they either go back to the former Soviet Union or stay in Israel illegally.

The second problem is when people want citizenship and claim that they are Jewish but the Ministry of the Interior refuses to recognize their Jewishness. This is a very emotional issue for many of the immigrants because they feel that being identified as Jewish on their ID card helps in finding work and in getting married in the future. This is the case even though the registration as Jewish on the ID card does not necessarily convince anyone of their Jewishness.


Getting a person's nationality changed is a very difficult procedure. The first step is for IRAC to send an informal letter to the Ministry of the Interior asking for a hearing. IRAC accompanies the client and provides any documents that they have. If the officials at the Minstry of the Interior cannot be persuaded on an informal level, the next step is to go to court. IRAC goes to the District Court to get a declaratory judgment forcing the Ministry of the Interior to change the registration. This is a long drawn-out process at the best of times. Sometimes the organization later finds out that the new immigrant has forged documents or that his or her claims are not completely true.

Civil rights and New Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union

Many of the problems with civil rights have occurred because there are numerous immigrants or numerous Russians who have come into the country on forged documentation which has created suspicion at the Ministry of the Interior. It is a fact of the current wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union that there have been hundreds of cases of people immigrating to Israel with forged documents. However, it is still difficult for those who immigrate to Israel with valid documents to have their rights to citizenship postponed for a year. There is no question that their civil rights are affected. They are not eligible for social security and their health benefits and health funds are much more expensive than those of a citizen who gets reduced rates. In the workplace their rights are not affected in that worker protection laws apply equally to residents, citizens and non-citizens. But it is harder, obviously, to enforce these laws in favour of someone who is not a citizen. And obviously knowing Hebrew makes a huge impact on civil rights in Israel, in the way you can express yourself and the way that you are treated by people.

In terms being registered as a Jew, it is more of an emotional issue than a civil right. Theoretically, one cannot be discriminated against in Israel because of race or creed. Therefore, whether one is recognized as Jewish or Russian on an ID card should make no difference. In cases that IRAC has come across where a person was dismissed from work or from a work interview because the employer was convinced the person was not Jewish, the employer has been forced to reconsider because it is against the law to discriminate on these grounds.

Mixed Couples and Discrimination

The main problem of mixed couples in Israel is related to their personal status, mainly that they cannot get married in Israel. If they are already a couple with children and they have been married for ten years, then there are no problems as far as the Ministry of the Interior is concerned. The problem arises when the couple has been married for under a year or for under two years and they do not have children. That is when the Ministry of the Interior investigates on the validity of the marriage. You cannot make a broad statement that all mixed couples are discriminated against on arriving into Israel. It is only those who have been married within the last one or two years, and the others where one partner comes to Israel first and the other partner does not come until two or three years later. That also often creates problems because they were not living together and were basically separated during that time.

Teudat Zehut and Access to Services

The Teudat Zehut is part of the Israeli mentality. Generally, people do not have to show it but they have to write down the ID number. People have to show it to open a bank account and it is possible you would have to show it to rent an apartment, possibly because they want to check the person's identity. The first time people go to a medical centre they must show their ID card because the centre has to open a medical file and have the personal information necessary for the National Health Insurance plan. Once the personal details are in the file the medical centres provide the patients with one of their own cards and the ID card is not required anymore. Employers are entitled to ask for people's Teudat Zehut.

There has been only one complaint out of the thousands of cases that have passed through IRAC offices of an individual who went to the authorities, was forced to show her Teudat Zehut and was refused services on the basis that she was not Jewish. In that case IRAC made representation on behalf of the woman to the head of the Department in question and the woman was able to received the services she was entitled to. It is very hard to believe that everybody else has kept silent because this is a severe breach of all basic rights. If this was a systematic behaviour on the part of the authorities, it would have been reported in the press and IRAC would have had several cases. This is not the case.

Improvements of the Services Offered to New Immigrants

The issue of marriage and divorce is very high on the agenda of IRAC and among civil rights activists in Israel. There are several human and civil rights organizations in Israel that have created a coalition working to change the law of marriage. Under the Labour government the Minister of Religious Affairs has made significant changes for marriage and divorce, for mixed couples in particular. The fact that Israel now has opened cemeteries for mixed burial is attributable to the situation created by the new immigrants.

Immigration Quotas?

The Olim have never indicated to IRAC that there are quotas at the Israeli embassies in the former Soviet Union.

New Immigrant Children and Schools

The problems with recently immigrated children in Israeli schools have been minimal. There have been a few cases of school yard fighting in Jerusalem and in Bersheeba but it has been very minimal. When they occur, these problems are dealt with on a local level by the social workers and it does not result in legal procedings.

Christians and Public Religious Signs

IRAC has never received complaints related to discrimination or harassment for wearing a Christian religious sign such as a cross.

Integration of New Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union

Many Olim immigrate to Israel assuming that they will have access to a very wide scope of rights that were not available to them in the former Soviet Union, or even in several western democracies. For example, whey new immigrants do not get a housing allowance, or when they do not get immediate recognition or when they do not fit into a certain qualification or criteria for different government bodies they feel it is systematic discrimination against them. There have been a number of new immigrants who have come and said "You are a democracy, we should have these rights." And it is very difficult to say that these are not really basic civil rights. The problem here is one of perception.

There is still work to be done. The situation is not perfect. There are cases of doctors who have worked in their profession for 13 or 14 years in Russia and they are not accepted as doctors here in Israel because of very strict requirements as to who can practise in the medical, pharmaceutical or nursing profession. It is a question of degree whether it is a breach of a civil right or not. On the one hand, you have a basic civil right to be able to work in your profession, on the other hand the country has to look after its own interests in terms of the basic level at which it is prepared to let people work.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and New Immigrants Access to Services

The services are limited, there is no question. The mandate is limited because of funding. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), has very strict criteria as to what is a breach of civil rights and not all civil rights NGOs have the financial ability to provide free legal assistance. The problem is that many of these new immigrants need or want somebody to pay for legal representation and there are very few NGOs who are able to do that. There is no basis for new immigrants saying that they were not given assistance because they are non-Jews. The reason they would not get assistance is because the NGOs felt they did not fit into their general criteria. There are no NGOs which determine whether a person is eligible for their service by what is on their ID card.

Civil rights organizations in Israel do not require the Teudat Zehut to provide services. The ID card is looked at for the ID number because it is often needed when making requests to government authorities. There are a lot of NGOs that provide free legal advice, meaning that clients meet with a lawyer that is available on a pro-bono basis and who will provide free legal advise, not free legal representation in court. There are a lot of organizations as well as local councils who provide free legal advise.

Other issues

Another issue is that of those whom the state does not recognize as Jewish, and cannot prove their Jewishness because they do not have documents. In these cases, they are considered as non-Jews because, although they claim to be Jews, they cannot prove it. On their Teudat Zehut they will have a mixture of "unknown" or "blank", or three dotted lines. There is also on some Teudat Zehut the inscription "not registered". Generally, if there is a case of someone who claims they are Jewish and cannot prove it, we can persuade the Ministry of the Interior to write "non-registered" or leave it blank.

Generally new immigrants facing this type of problem need to consult with organizations that would provide assistance such as writing to the legal advisor of the Ministry of the Interior. Then again, in the last year the Ministry of the Interior has been more prepared to write "not registered", instead of "Russian".


Legal Counsellor, Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC), Jerusalem. 27 May 1996. Interview.