The Problem with the Law of Return: Who is Entitled to Immigrate to Israel?
Recently (August 2020) the Law of Return returned to the headlines. This law was constituted almost as soon as Israel was founded, and proposals to alter it are submitted to this day. There is hardly a person in Israel who has not heard of the Law of Return, which defines who is entitled to immigrate to the Holy Land. What is the problem with the Law of Return? Why, in fact, have there been calls to change it for many decades?
One of the significant core issues in the State of Israel is the question of “who is a Jew,” since this is the key to obtaining Israeli citizenship. Disagreement over the question of who is a Jew and who is entitled to become an Israeli citizen also exists among the country’s residents and, of course, in the Knesset.
Why Is the Law of Return Now Making Headlines?
The issue of the Law of Return and the issue of Judaism have come up again, this time following a proposal by MK Bezalel Smotrich. The Law of Return, as a substantive law that determines the character of the State of Israel, contains a particularly charged issue, with many political implications for the Knesset and the current government.
MK Smotrich sought to remove the controversial “grandson clause,” thus denying the Aliyah (immigration to Israel) of grandchildren of Jews to Israel and preventing the phenomenon of immigration of non-Jewish family members of Jews. MK Smotrich found that there are hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Soviet Union who are religiously unaffiliated, are non-Jewish, and do not even have a Jewish affinity, but are nonetheless entitled to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return as family members of Jews. For various reasons, conversion to Judaism of those religiously unaffiliated immigrants has not become a sweeping phenomenon, and they and their children remain with no official religious status. According to Smotrich, their numbers will only increase, over the years, which will constitute a danger to the identity of the Jewish people.
Such a decision has great political significance, not only these days, but also for the coming days, and will determine the future of the State of Israel and its immigrants. If it is indeed determined, after 50 years during which non-Jewish grandchildren of Jews were allowed to immigrate to Israel, that they will no longer be allowed to make Aliyah, this will have far-reaching significance. Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry may be damaged, since many Jews in the diaspora are not halachically (i.e., according to the religious laws of Judaism) Jewish, but have an affinity to Judaism and to the State of Israel.
What Is the Law of Return?
The law was passed in the Knesset in 1950, but its roots were already laid in the Mandate in 1922. The reason for passing this law was probably the special character of the State of Israel. Unlike other countries, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, and its uniqueness is that it is the national home for the Jewish people and a center of Aliyah for Jews all over the world.
According to the law, every Jew (but for a few exceptions) has the right to immigrate to Israel and become an Israeli citizen. Thus the obvious question arises – who is a Jew? In 1970, an amendment to the law was passed after the elusive issue came up for discussion, and it was determined that even those who have only one Jewish grandparent may immigrate to Israel and become an Israeli citizen. That is, even those whose family has assimilated over the years can still become Israeli citizens.
The law also allows non-Jewish spouses of Jews to immigrate to Israel. These spouses may become residents or citizens of Israel, according to their preference. In addition, converts to Judaism who converted halachically in a recognized Jewish community are entitled to the definition of “Jews” under the Law of Return, along with their family members in certain cases.
What Is the Problem with the Law of Return?
However, the problem with the Law of Return and Israeli politics is the mismatch between the definition of who is entitled to Aliyah under the Law of Return and who is halachically defined as a Jew, which is based on the status of the mother; that is, if the mother is halachically Jewish, so is every child of hers. There are many people who are entitled to immigrate to Israel by virtue of the Law of Return, that is, people who have at least one Jewish grandparent, despite the fact that they are not Jewish themselves, either halachically or even in terms of self-definition.
The mismatch is evident in the massive Aliyah from the former Soviet Union that started in the early 1990s and continues today, following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Generations of Jews were raised under communism, which advocated a lack of religious identity and a lack of national boundaries. As a result, many members of the Jewish community started families with non-Jews. Now the issue arises, when those descendants want to immigrate to Israel. According to recent data, 86% of these new immigrants are non-Jews according Jewish religious law – that is, their mother is not halachically Jewish. For immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the data shows that 1 out of every 25 immigrants is halachically Jewish.
Since the waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union began, in the early 1990s, the issue was brought up for public discussion from time to time, mainly by the religious political parties, who believe that Judaism should be more exclusive. They claim that a significant number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union did not come to Israel for Zionist reasons but, rather, to receive economic benefits and enjoy the many rights Olim receive by virtue of having Israeli citizenship. These proposals are usually rejected, and the dispute remains in place.
So What Can You Do?
Those who wish to immigrate to Israel and have one Jewish grandparent are usually required to present proof of the grandparent’s Judaism, which is not a simple matter, especially if the grandparent is no longer among the living. For this reason, many of those who wish to immigrate enlist the services of an immigration lawyer. As the name implies, an immigration lawyer is a lawyer who is knowledgeable about the laws of the State of Israel and the question of who is a citizen, who is a resident, what are the rights of each of them, and so on. An immigration lawyer will represent the interests of the person wishing to make Aliyah to Israel and help obtain the permit to do so.