Moment Debate | Will Changing the Law of Return Harm Israel-Diaspora Relations?

DEBATERS

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).

David M. Friedman was U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2017 to 2021.

INTERVIEW WITH RABBI RICK JACOBS

Will Changing the Law of Return Harm Israel-Diaspora Relations? | Yes 

Will changing the Law of Return harm Israel-diaspora relations?

Yes, significantly. The Law of Return is a sacred bond between the Jews of the world and the State of Israel. It’s a categorical statement to all Jews that “You are connected to us and we to you”—that all Jews are part of the extended Jewish family. That’s not the statement of a chief rabbi or a political party but of the nation as a whole. It’s been a constant from Labor to centrist to conservative governments. In a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, only 11 percent of left-wing Israelis, 19 percent of centrists and 37 percent of right-wingers were in favor of changing it. Particularly with antisemitism increasing, it’s antithetical to the whole project of Zionism for Israel to limit which Jews it welcomes.

Sergio Della Pergola, the highly respected demographer in Israel, says eliminating the “grandchild clause,” which allows people with one Jewish grandparent to make aliyah, as proposed, would deny that right to 3 million grandchildren of Jews worldwide. Even this year, an overwhelming number of those who’ve come as refugees from Ukraine don’t meet the halachic definition of who is a Jew. Thank goodness, Israel’s arms were open to them. This law must not change, especially now, at this vulnerable time for the Jewish community.

What changes do you think are likely?

Members of the new government are demanding a host of very significant policy changes in many areas, not just the Law of Return. I’m not comforted by assurances from the prime minister that these demands will be somehow resisted. We have to be loud and clear that these changes endangering democracy and human rights are catastrophic and would do real harm.

Are there implications for conversion policy?

Not directly, but there’s a slippery slope. The same people targeting the grandchild clause want to reverse the Supreme Court case from March 2021 recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions done within Israel for the purposes of citizenship and even the 1971 decision recognizing as Jews those who underwent non-Orthodox conversions abroad. Such a change would further demonize and delegitimize non-Orthodox Jews, the largest movements in Jewish life today. Think of the alienating message this sends. Even the discussion of it is offensive. Jews should be uplifting other Jews. I’d put my life on the line to uphold the right of the ultra-Orthodox to be part of the Jewish people.

It’s antithetical to the whole project of Zionism for Israel to limit which Jews it welcomes.

For those concerned about the number of citizens in Israel and in the IDF who are not halachically Jewish, the way to address it is in fact through conversion—not the ultra-Orthodox conversion that is the only one recognized in Israel today, but an approach in which the government would recognize more liberal views of conversion.

Do Jews still believe that part of Israel’s purpose is the ingathering of the exiles?

Absolutely. That’s part of the safety and well-being of Jews all around the world. It’s in the Reform liturgy and in the Reform Movement’s platform. Many of my own students have made Israel their home. At the same time, we want Jews to be safe wherever they live. You aren’t a less authentic Jew because you live in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires.

Do American Jews think of Israel as a refuge, a place they could go if they needed to? Most American Jews aren’t packing their bags. They’re staying put and affirming the democratic backbone that has kept us safe. On the Shabbat after the Tree of Life shooting in 2018, non-Jewish communities came out and stood with us, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and said, “If you harm any of us, you harm all of us.” We’ve never lived before in countries where that was actually true.

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Most liberal North American Jews are offended and alienated by Israel’s marginalizing of the non-Orthodox, for instance at the Western Wall, and by so many other unacceptable aspects of the status quo. Non-Orthodox rabbis are not allowed to conduct official weddings in Israel, and they need special favors to officiate at funerals. But these liberal communities still feel a deep bond to Israel, even as Israel pushes them away.

Will this issue further polarize the American Jewish community?

It won’t necessarily alienate American Jews from one another. I don’t hear most of my Orthodox colleagues expressing enthusiasm for these changes, either. The State of Israel is the most important project of contemporary Jewish life; we must not allow extreme political forces to harm the bonds of global Jewish peoplehood. We must grow and deepen the bonds of love and mutual responsibility that bind Israel and the diaspora together.

INTERVIEW WITH AMBASSADOR DAVID M. FRIEDMAN 

Will Changing the Law of Return Harm Israel-Diaspora Relations? | No

Will changing the Law of Return harm Israel-diaspora relations?

No. Not if people take the time to look at what the proposed changes really are instead of reacting to rumors and hysteria. It’s almost entirely non-Jewish Russians who will be affected by this—not Americans. The change being considered would have a negligible effect on Jews seeking to make aliyah from the United States, but a lot of left-wing Jews are jumping on it as a pretext, a reason to break with Israel. The left-wing Jewish community has its hair on fire over this, but it was never directed at them. You can count on one hand the number of American Jews who have availed themselves of the so-called “grandchild clause” in the last decade. I’m not aware of any stream of Judaism that considers a single Jewish grandparent to be sufficient to establish one’s Jewish identity, so I don’t understand why removing that clause would cause friction.

What changes do you think are likely?

The proposal that seems to be moving forward is to roll back the 1970 law to its 1950 version. In the 1950s, you had to be Jewish or have one Jewish parent to become Israeli. That law was in place until the 1970s, and no one in the American Jewish community was heard to complain. This was before the Reform movement moved toward the policy of recognizing patrilineal descent—saying Judaism could be transmitted through the father, not just the mother—so Israel was actually ahead of the United States in having a liberal definition of who was a Jew for immigration purposes. In 1970, the law was expanded to allow entry to those with only a Jewish grandparent, not a parent, and that’s where we are today.

It’s almost entirely non-Jewish Russians who will be affected by this—not Americans.

To be clear, the intention of the Law of Return was never to come up with any kind of halachic definition of who was a Jew. It was just to create a working political definition of who would be allowed into the country. In 1970, the economy was in the doldrums, threats from Israel’s neighbors were severe, the army was at risk of becoming dilapidated and the demographic outlook was not good, so people were welcomed if they had any self-identification as a Jew, even if it was remote. Today Israel has a spectacular economy, and there’s a crisis in eastern Europe and Russia, such that even before the war on Ukraine there was a huge economic incentive for people in that region to come to Israel. They don’t pretend to be Jewish, or identify as Jewish, but they qualify under this law. And it has created in Israel a large non-Jewish segment of society which, from a demographic perspective, many in Israel think is becoming a disadvantage.

Are there implications for conversion policy?

Not if we are talking simply about rolling back the immigration policy to remove the “grandchild” clause. There are other changes that some have raised, but I don’t believe that they will move forward.

Do Jews still believe that part of Israel’s purpose is the ingathering of the exiles?

Very much so. In every generation we’ll find some group of Jews who are threatened, who are no longer able to live peacefully or practice their religion, and Israel goes through great heroics to make sure they’re able to come to Israel. It’s very much a part of Israel and I think it will continue to be, because there will continue to be Jews threatened around the world who need refuge. I hope and pray it won’t be American Jews. But even today there are pockets of Jews all over the world who see Israel as a place they’ll ultimately be gathered.

Do American Jews think of Israel as a refuge, a place they could go if they needed to?

I don’t think most American Jews think that way, though I’m sure there are a few. I don’t belittle the antisemitism in the United States, because it’s growing and it’s serious and needs to be tackled, but most American Jews have enough faith in their country and its institutions and the U.S. Constitution to be confident that Jews will remain safe and secure here.

Will this issue further polarize the American Jewish community?

More than it already is? It’s pretty polarized right now. Many in the American Jewish community are not willing to give any benefit of the doubt to the new Israeli government, and that’s a shame. They see a lot of Orthodox Jews in the government, and it leads them to form all kinds of hypercritical views, most of which are unfair. Benjamin Netanyahu is the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history, with an established track record of running the country. These are exactly the people he said he’d form a government with if elected, and he’s doing what his voters expected. I think he will properly seek to balance all the competing interests. So let’s all calm down, take a deep breath and not judge the government before it’s even gotten started.

 

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One thought on “Moment Debate | Will Changing the Law of Return Harm Israel-Diaspora Relations?

  1. hag says:

    NO… there will just be No relations

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