Israeli bomb victim finally buried

Burial row dogs Israeli immigrants, bombing victim

JERUSALEM (Reuter) - The grave diggers finished their work and Grigory Pesachovic's relatives arrived but his pine coffin remained above ground.

The burial of the 15-year-old boy, who died with 12 other Israelis in an Islamic suicide bombing last week, plunged his family into an ugly dispute with Jewish religious authorities. Orthodox rabbis with powers over spheres of Israeli life from cradle to grave say Pesachovic and thousands of others who migrated from the former Soviet Union under the "law of return" are not Jews according to religious law.

They refused to bury him in a Jewish cemetery, sending the body to Mount Zion, where Christians are interred. But Pesachovic was not brought up as a Christian, and when the Greek Orthodox priest at Mount Zion insisted on conducting a religious burial, the boy's mother called off the funeral and the body was taken to the morgue.

Four days later, the family agreed to his burial in part of a Jerusalem cemetery for the Baha'i faith.

"This is an affront and a humiliation to a family whose members are full citizens of this country and deserve full rights," said veteran civil rights activist Shulamit Aloni, a former cabinet minister and a Jew.

UP TO 500,000 WHOSE JUDAISM IS "IN DOUBT"

Immigration has been fundamental to Israel since the Jewish state was created in 1948 but widespread inter-marriage among Jews in the former Soviet Union has fostered ambivalence among Israel's clergy over the wave of Soviet immigrants who began arriving in 1989.

Under religious law, non-binding in Israel's legal system but viewed as a source of legislative inspiration, Jews are defined according to their mothers. Orthodox rabbis consider the children of mixed marriages to be Jews only if the mother is Jewish, and Pesachovic's mother is not Jewish.

Rules for instant citizenship under Israel's "law of return" are much less strict, requiring any one Jewish parent or grandparent. The discrepancy between Israeli law and Jewish Orthodoxy -- the most religiously stringent form of Judaism and the dominant one in Israel -- accounts for the problems many of the nearly 700,000 recent immigrants have faced.

"There are no pure Jewish communities left anywhere in the world. If we are interested in further immigration it must be clear that... we'll get a high percentage of non-Jews," said Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein, a Russian immigrant.

Many immigrants have been unable to marry since rabbis refuse to perform what they view as mixed marriages. Orthodox rabbis alone are authorized to perform weddings in Israel.

Some recent immigrants have been pressured to undergo an arduous conversion to erase doubts about their Judaism.

"In our estimate there are as many as 500,000 people among the immigrants whose Judaism is in doubt," said Yair Wolf, adviser to the Religious Affairs Ministry, which controls most Jewish cemeteries.

"A MATTER OF RESURRECTION"

Wolf said rabbis explain the strict separation between Jews and non-Jews in cemeteries as a way of helping the messiah distinguish among religious groups during redemption.

"This is a matter of resurrection. Jews cannot be buried next to non-Jews," he said, but he added that authorities were fencing off sections of cemeteries for burial of "special cases."

Pesachovic's posthumous plight may have lent new impetus to a campaign for secular cemeteries launched years ago but stuck since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year formed a government largely of religious and right-wing parties.

Netanyahu visited the boy's family, asserting in a statement later that Pesachovic was "part of the nation in Israel which terrorists are trying to oust."

A law passed before Netanyahu's election 14 months ago ordered the Religious Affairs Ministry to allocate land for secular cemeteries but officials say they do not have money.

Aloni said the rabbis were stonewalling while Pesachovic and others paid the price. "He's good enough to die for Israel, he would have been good enough to serve in the Israeli army had he lived to age 18, but he's not good enough for a proper burial," she said.


©Copyright 1997, Reuter

Page last revised 090999