JERUSALEM — Lev Peisakhov came to Israel three years ago as a Jew returning to his religious homeland. He joined the army as a Jew called to military service, and when he was killed by Palestinian gunmen last week, he was praised as a Jew who had given his life for his people.
But when Peisakhov, 20, a Russian immigrant from Azerbaijan, was buried, it was on the very edge of the military cemetery in Bet Shean. That happened after rabbis ruled that he was not, in fact, Jewish--and could not be because his mother, Svetlana, is Christian.
The ensuing controversy reopened one of Israel's most sensitive questions: Who is a Jew?
Even before the establishment of the Jewish state 45 years ago, the question was debated because it goes to the very character of Israel as a nation. Over the years, it became one of the most contentious social issues here as rabbis have questioned the Jewishness of some immigrants, refused to recognize many foreign conversions and barred marriages of people they did not deem Jewish.
"If a man has a Jewish father, is raised as a Jew, comes to Israel on \o7 aliyah \f7 (as an immigrant) and serves in the army, then he is a Jew," said Avraham Poraz, a member of Parliament from the leftist Meretz Party, voicing the outrage felt over Peisakhov's burial. "For me, a man's beliefs and his life determine whether he is Jewish."
But under the \o7 halakhah, \f7 traditional Jewish law, a Jew is a person born of a Jewish mother or a convert whose adoption of the Jewish faith and religious way of life has been accepted by a rabbinical court. Those are the criteria rabbinical authorities applied to Peisakhov, a corporal in the Israeli armored corps, after he was shot dead by Palestinian gunmen while manning a roadblock on the occupied West Bank.
In July, rabbis had ordered that an immigrant killed in a terrorist attack be buried as a non-Jew, drawing protests from the Russian community. But Peisakhov's funeral was, in the words of many, "a national scandal."
"The burial of Lev Peisakhov causes me to be ashamed of my Jewishness," said Dov Shilansky, deputy speaker of the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, from the opposition Likud Party.
Rabbi Shlomo Goren, a former chief rabbi, recalled that, as the army's chief chaplain, he had ruled as early as 1948 that "every \o7 goy \f7 (gentile) who died defending the state must be buried as a Jew" and criticized the ultra-religious \o7 haredi \f7 minority for imposing their views.
"Not only do they not join the army," Goren said of the \o7 haredi \f7 Orthodox, "but they want to decide for us who is buried in a military cemetery."
But \o7 haredi \f7 leaders defended the decision not only as correct in terms of Jewish religious customs but proper for Israel as a Jewish society.
"Anyone created in the image (of God) must be honored in his life, and certainly at his death, especially if he served in the Israel Defense Forces," said Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a Knesset member from the ultra-religious United Torah Party. "But to treat someone with honor does not mean converting the soldier after his death and forcing a Jewish burial on him."
Peisakhov was given an Orthodox Jewish burial, but in a grave along the cemetery fence, a place traditionally reserved for suicides, apostates, notorious sinners and people whose Jewishness was doubtful.
"People who are Jewish would not want to be buried next to someone who is not Jewish," Menachem Porush, a Knesset member from United Torah, said in defending the decision to bury Peisakhov at the cemetery's outer limit.
Svetlana Peisakhova was bitter, viewing the decision as a rejection not only of her son but of the 500,000 immigrants who have come to Israel from the former Soviet Union.
"My son deserves what every other hero killed in the Israeli army gets," she said. "How can it be any different? I want to look those rabbis in the eye, those who decided to put my son in a corner, and talk with them. They don't even send their sons to the army.
"So what if I am not Jewish? Am I not a human being? Don't they think that what they did hurts me?"
Through the week, the controversy grew with political, religious and military leaders speaking out.
"Whoever buries a soldier next to a fence should be found next to the fence of our society--or beyond it," Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said. "Only that pain can come close to the shame that the rabbis have caused us. Lev Peisakhov was Jewish enough to die, but not Jewish enough to be buried."
Finally, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, described by an aide as "very angry" over the rabbis' action, said Peisakhov's body should be reburied.
But the family declined his offer. "I don't want him moved," Svetlana Peisakhova said. "He should be left where he is, he will have a lot of space there. And there is a God who I hope will punish those who caused this."