TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — Israel’s Chief Rabbi, David Lau, has openly admitted to the use of DNA tests to determine a person’s “Jewish ancestry” before allowing them to marry in Israel and be granted Jewish status. The practice, as so far revealed, has only been used on Jews from states that once comprised the Soviet Union, leading to accusations of discrimination and racism from prominent Israeli politicians, including former Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
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The practice was first made public in a report from religious service NGO ITIM that was published last week. The report detailed the accounts of around 20 Jewish couples who had been asked to undergo the procedure to determine whether one or both spouses were “genetically Jewish,” which is a condition of Jewish marriage registration that only the Chief Rabbinate can grant, given its control over Jewish religious rites in the country. Those who do not obtain the Rabbinate’s approval are unable to marry, as the Rabbinate, which is a part of Israel’s government, has exclusive control over religious marriages and only religious marriages are recognized by the state of Israel.
ITIM’s report led Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to first acknowledge but then deny the practice, while Lau confirmed its use but claimed that it was voluntary and used only in isolated cases.
A subsequent investigation by Ynet News, published on Monday, confirmed ITIM’s claims but suggested that Lau’s assurances of such tests being voluntary and used only in isolated instances were inaccurate. Several testimonials in Ynet’s report assert that those seeking marriages, as well as their relatives, were told to submit to DNA testing or have their marriage requests denied. In one case, DNA testing was required of a woman, her mother, and her aunt to ensure that the woman’s mother had not been adopted and was “genetically Jewish.” In another instance, a man was put on a “delayed marriage” list after refusing to consent to the DNA test.
A follow-up report from the Jerusalem Post noted that “more than 700,000 Jewish Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union routinely have their Jewish status challenged when seeking religious services through the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Courts,” suggesting that the DNA tests targeting this segment of Israel’s Jewish population are part of a pattern of discrimination. Currently, about 1 million out of Israel’s total population of 8 million Jews are from former Soviet states.
This is hardly the first firestorm that Lau’s policies as Israel’s chief rabbi have created. Indeed, Lau, who has been Israel’s chief rabbi since 2013, is no stranger to accusations of racism or discrimination. In just his first week on the job, Lau made comments widely considered racist by using a derogatory term to refer to African-American basketball players.
Lau had asked, “Why do you care about whether these kushim [a derogatory term for black people] who get paid in Tel Aviv beat the kushim who get paid in Greece?” Before adding that “Even my kashrut [kosher] certification inspectors are ashamed to enter places where yeshiva students watch a screen every Thursday night during the winter [season].” His comments were harshly condemned by Israeli Jews of African origin, including several Ethiopian-born Knesset members.
Some hypocritical rebukes
The revelation regarding the Rabbinate’s use of DNA testing has drawn sharp rebukes from prominent Israeli politicians — including members of the Israeli far-right, such as former Israeli Defense Minister and head of the Yisrael Beytenu Party Avigdor Lieberman.
Lieberman, who was born in Moldova (then part of the USSR), stated that “from the perspective of the rabbinic establishment, the Judaism of this great community [of Jews from former Soviet states] … is automatically suspect” and added that the practice, despite the rabbi’s denials, is indeed forced on those asked to undergo genetic testing, “since in practice [the rabbinate] refuses to register as Jewish someone who does not ‘willingly’ consent to the test.” Lieberman has since called for Lau’s resignation.
Lieberman’s concerns about discrimination are ironic, given that he has spent his career promoting discrimination against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. Some examples of Lieberman’s past discriminatory rhetoric include calling for the beheading of “disloyal” Arabs, promoting a plan to pay Arabs to leave Israel, suggesting that Palestinian prisoners be drowned, and calling to “boycott” Arabs with Israeli citizenship in the Wadi Ara region because they “do not belong to the State of Israel.”
In addition to prominent Israeli politicians, many Orthodox rabbis in Israel have also rejected the DNA testing and accused Lau of thinly veiled racism. For instance, Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz of the Orthodox Hashgacha Pratit organization told the Jerusalem Post:
The Chief Rabbinate is dividing and fracturing Israeli society. Sending olim for DNA testing is another step in turning the ‘inquiry’ of Judaism into the prosecution of Judaism, and in the blurring of lines between halachic due-diligence and what is experienced by couples as something embarrassing and insulting, akin to a criminal investigation.”
Another Orthodox Rabbi, Seth Farber of ITIM, told the Jerusalem Post that the practice would essentially create a caste system of Jews in Israel and was contrary to Jewish law:
The Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Courts are using technology rather than Jewish law to determine Jewishness, and this is a slippery slope which will create different classes of Jews, something which Jewish law completely opposes.”
The ethnostate’s inherent discriminations
The current discrimination against Israeli Jews from former Soviet states comes at a time when the state of Israel’s discrimination against both African Jews and its Arab citizens is becoming more well-known internationally, largely thanks to recent comments made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This past Sunday, Netanyahu stated that Israel is “not a state of all of its citizens” and was a state exclusively for the Jewish people, drawing condemnation from Israeli Arabs who comprise approximately 20 percent of Israel’s population.
Notably, one potential reason for the discrimination against Jews from former Soviet states could be the fact that such Jews are often more secular than other Israeli Jews and are also more likely to support Israel’s democracy over its ethnostate status. They are also more likely than other Israeli Jews to support placing democratic principles above Jewish law. Netanyahu, now facing a re-election bid, has built his base of support among Israeli Jews who support Israel’s ethnostate over the country’s democracy and favor the current apartheid system or the expulsion of Israeli Arabs.
With the apartheid-style discrimination against Arabs out in the open, it is hardly surprising that the ideology of a state for the “Jewish race” has resulted in discrimination against certain groups within Israeli Jewry. Such is the nature of ethnic-supremacy movements, which invariably seek to push demographics toward an ideal. Perhaps these latest revelations will serve as a wake-up call to Israeli Jews of Soviet origin that the discrimination they are facing has its roots in the state-sanctioned discrimination against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.
Top Photo | Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s (center) meeting with selected Chief Rabbis, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (left) and Rabbi David Lau at the Prime Minister’s office in Tel Aviv. Amos Ben Gershom | GPO
Whitney Webb is a MintPress News journalist based in Chile. She has contributed to several independent media outlets including Global Research, EcoWatch, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has made several radio and television appearances and is the 2019 winner of the Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism