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Russian Jewish Convert to Catholicism Is Made Stateless By Israeli Government Action

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January-February 1997

A Russian Jewish woman who truthfully told Israeli Government officials that she had converted to Roman Catholicism has been made stateless as a result, according to a New York Times (Nov. 25, 1996) report.  

The Times’ correspondent in Jerusalem, Serge Schmemann, notes that, "In 1990, Regina and Alexander Deriev and their son, Denis, took advantage of the new religious freedoms in the Soviet Union and were baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. In 1991 they immigrated to Israel. That combination would not make the Derievs different from many other Soviet immigrants in Israel. It is common knowledge here and a source of some resentment among Israelis that tens of thousands of the immigrants . . . have questionable Jewish credentials."  

What makes Mrs. Deriev different, Schmemann points out, is that she is a Jew by birth who "insisted when they arrived in Israel on telling authorities that she is Christian, instead of simply maintaining that she is a non-believer as many other Soviet immigrants have done. That thrust the Derievs smack into the heart of the fundamental Israeli debate over who is a Jew, and for five years it left them in a singular state of limbo."  

In November, the Israeli High Court rejected the Derievs’ application for citizenship, noting that the Law of Return, which governs the right of Jews to settle in Israel, excludes Jews who have adopted another faith. Under the law, spouses and immediate family of someone who is accepted as Jewish are allowed to qualify for Israeli citizenship.  

The dilemma facing the Derievs, notes The Times, is that, "The country from which the Derievs came, the Soviet Union, no longer exists. So they cannot be deported, and they cannot go to some other country because they have no passports. Kazakstan, where they last lived when it was part of the Soviet Union, will not take them back because they are not Kazaks. Russia will not take them because they are not Russians . . ."  

In Mrs. Deriev’s case, one "twist is that had she immigrated first and converted later, she would have had fewer problems. Once she had received her citizenship, she would have been free to convert to Christianity," The Times reports.  

The Derievs’ lawyer, Lynda Brayer, is a South African Jew who became a Catholic when she was already in Israel. Her practice is in human rights law. She states: "The only reason they’re in trouble is that they didn’t lie." She notes that the Israeli official in Moscow urged the Derievs to put "Jewish" or "non-believer" on their application forms and did so deliberately to bring in as many immigrants as possible. She said that Israel is therefore bound to accept the Derievs.  

Mrs. Brayer said she believed the Derievs are the victims of a fundamental clash between the Israeli Government’s effort to bring as many Jews as possible to Israel and the determination of the rabbis to maintain control over the "purity" of the arrivals.

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