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Israel's chief rabbi demands citizens prove their Jewishness

An ultra-orthodox Jewish hold a traditional wedding ceremony in Jerusalem [Anadolu/Getty]

Date of publication: 14 March, 2019

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An investigation has revealed that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel requests those hoping to marry, as well as their relatives, undergo a DNA test to prove their Jewishness.

Israel's rabbinate has ordered genetic testing on Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union before they are allowed to marry, to check whether they are "genetically Jewish", Ynet has revealed.

A chief rabbi demanded citizens prove their "Jewishness" with at least 20 couples affected by this in the last year have come forward, according to a ITIM institute report.

This was initially denied by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri but Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau admitted to requesting couples to prove their Jewishness.

Ynet uncovered that the procedure was not just undertaken by the couples, but also by their relatives.

"In one instance, a young woman who went to the rabbinate before her wedding was asked to conduct a DNA test along with her mother and her aunt, in order to eliminate the possibility that her mother was adopted," said Ynet.

The chief rabbinate, which has control over Jewish religious rites in Israel, told the young woman that her marriage application would be denied if she refused the request.

A man who refused to undergo a DNA test was put on a "delayed marriage" list. The rabbinate requested the test after it claims to have seen inaccuracies in the documents proving his grandmother's Jewishness.

"These instances are examples of what appears to be a growing phenomenon where those applying to register for marriage, are being asked to undergo genetic testing if they want to have their requests granted," wrote Ynet.

Yisrael Beiteinu Party Chairman Avigdor Lieberman said the tests were "blatant racism and discrimination" and called on Lau to resign.

Some 5,000 immigrants were asked to prove their Jewishness in recent years, according to Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber, founder of ITIM. 

In cases where Jewish people don't possess backing documents or the rabbinate finds contradictions "we suggest undergoing DNA tests that would strengthen their claims", said Lau. "It's never forced upon anyone and only used to assist applicants in the research process."

Israel's mainly ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has refused to recognise the Abayudaya, a Ugandan Jewish community. The community has struggled to migrate to Israel and last June, the Israeli government denied the immigration request of Kibitz Yosef, one of the Abayudaya.

Farber expressed his worries to The Jerusalem Post in 2017 that using scientific means such as the DNA tests could lead rabbinical judges to reject valid tools in Jewish law by which Jewish status is established.

The rabbinate challenging the status of those confirmed Jewish by the state suggests it has more stringent regulations regarding "Jewishness".

"These are family members who have undergone thorough examination of their Jewishness and came to live in Israel. Suddenly and without their will or consent, a cloud of doubt is cast over their Jewishness," laywers for ITIM argued in a similar case in 2017. 

Israel's "Law of Return" guarantees automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent

After the immigration of more than a million people from former Soviet Union countries in the 1990s on this basis, the Chief Rabbinate began checking the Jewishness of marriage applicants. It became official policy in 2002.

It is claimed the vast majority of rabbinical court investigations focus on those from the former Soviet Union. 

Rabbi Shimon Yaakovi, an attorney who directs the Rabbinical Courts Administration, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in January 2017 that the "rabbinical courts must protect the Jewish nation from being unwittingly compromised by intermarriage".

"We can't have someone walking around wrongly thinking he's a Jew, and his family and friends believing it," he said.

"I understand people's need to be part of the Jewish collective in Israel, but there are rules... Judaism is not being measured by feelings."

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