Opinion | Does the Law of Return Need Changing?

It’s a big question—the new Israeli government should tread lightly

Israel’s 1950 Law of Return is the instrument through which the State of Israel has sought to fulfill two main goals: to be a refuge for all Jews, and to ensure Israel as a Jewish domain. This law is the main expression of the state’s connection to all Jews. Now, many Israelis—in fact, by some counts, a majority of Jewish Israelis—seem to want to change it. That’s worrying. Not because these Israelis are necessarily wrong, but rather because a change to such an important law ought not to be made based on passing political conditions.

The new governing coalition in Israel includes many members who have made it their goal to narrow the definition of Jewishness in the law, arguing that many of those who get in aren’t truly Jewish. The coalition agreement did not fully endorse their demands, but it does promise to amend the law “in light of the difficulties and loopholes created” by the way the law was crafted.

It is not at all clear what change is going to emerge from the vague language in the coalition agreement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled that canceling the clause that enables grandchildren of Jews to “return” is not on his agenda. The loudly expressed opposition by some in Israel—and the strong pushback from world Jewish leaders—makes it unappealing.

Then again, the issue is not going away. Poll numbers assembled by themadad.com and analyzed by pollster Camil Fuchs explain why: Almost 60 percent of Likud voters support a change to the Law of Return. Right-wing voters in general support a change (almost 80 percent), as do a plurality of center-right voters. So there you are—the support for change is high. And about that possible pushback? Most supporters say that they will not change their minds even if it leads to a “crisis between Israel and Jewish communities” in other countries. Their argument is clear: When it comes to immigration policies, only Israelis are eligible to decide who gets in.

What is the essence of the problem motivating those who want change? The law makes all people who are either Jewish, or have a Jewish parent or grandparent, eligible to make aliyah and receive all the benefits of citizenship. This broad definition ensures that many of the newcomers are not Jewish according to Jewish law.

Proponents of a change argue that most who have come to Israel under the Law of Return in recent decades aren’t clearly Jewish, whether because they don’t consider themselves Jewish or because others don’t accept them as such. Some Israelis consider such people “Jewish enough” because they have some Jewish origin and have made the decision to become Israelis. But to other Israelis, they seem, well, gentile. In many cases they have no Jewish cultural or communal background. Many do not meet the ancient halachic criterion of having a Jewish mother.

Some argue that the one-grandparent definition is arbitrary and no longer relevant. When the law was changed to its current form in the early 1970s, they point out, Israel was not, as it is now, a magnet for immigration generally. Today, because of Israel’s economic success, the picture is different. So, proponents say, it is time to tighten the boundary—from grandparent to parent—to ensure Jewish coherence.

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The counterargument—for keeping the law as it is—is more complicated. Some stress that the newcomers are, after all, the descendants of Jews. If they were distanced from Jewish life because of specific circumstances (such as living in communist countries), making aliyah could revive their connection to Judaism while allowing them to become productive citizens. Other opponents worry that a change would signal second-class citizenship to nearly half a million Israelis not recognized as Jews who have been absorbed into Israeli society since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Yet others worry about the message a change would send to the rest of the Jewish world: Does Israel want to disconnect itself from many Jews who have mixed families or whose Jewish identity may not stem from a direct Jewish bloodline?

We should not pretend that these are easy questions. In fact, that’s the one thing that ought not to be disputed: Changing the Law of Return is a big move, with possibly dramatic effects and consequences. Thus, the need for open, honest and serious discussion on both sides of the ocean. Diaspora Jews can’t just freak out and dismiss the concerns of Israelis as if they have no merit—because they have. Israeli Jews cannot just insist on change without considering the impact of change on other Jews—because the idea of having a Law of Return is connected to the idea that Israel, in some way, is a state of all Jews. Sure, the country has the final word on its immigration policy. But the essence of the Law of Return is that it is not just a law—it is a symbol of Israel’s raison d’être. It should be handled with care.

Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based editor and columnist. 

Opening picture: The group Nefesh B’Nefesh welcomes North American olim (immigrants) to Israel. Photo credit: Wikimedia

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