Amending the Law of Return? This is not the way to preserve the Israel’s Jewish character

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(Photo: Aeroprints.com via Wikimedia Commons)

A proposed amendment to the Law of Return was recently brought forward at the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. The suggestion was that the right for Aliyah and Israeli citizenship will no longer be granted to the non-Jewish grandchildren of a Jew, as is the case today. 

Why did a heated discussion on Jewish identity and Israeli citizenship erupt on the Knesset floor in light of the proposal? What can the Messianic Jewish community in Israel and abroad learn from this? 

Shortly before the High Holidays, a commotion arose in the Knesset assembly, centered on a proposed amendment to the Law of Return. Opposition Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina faction, which is the right wing religious political party) proposed to nullify the grandchild clause in the Law of Return. His argument was that Israel is the only place where the Jewish people can protect its existence and we have the historic responsibility as Jews to preserve the Jewish character of our country. 

What “Jewish character of Israel” is MK Smotrich talking about? Obviously his specific version of orthodox Judaism, which categorically excludes other versions of Judaism, held by many other Israelis and Jews around the world.

The Law of Return: historical background

Law of Return was legislated in 1950 to anchor the rights of all Diaspora Jews to make Aliyah to Israel and receive Israeli citizenship by virtue of being Jewish. The original law did not define the term “Jewish”, simply stating that “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh”. 

The last amendment to the Law of Return was passed in 1970, half a century ago. On the one hand, this amendment limited the range of those eligible to make Aliyah by defining the term “Jewish” — based on the traditional religious definition, “a person whose mother is Jewish or someone who converted to Judaism”. 

Also, a person who is Jewish, but “the son of another religion” was excluded from the right to make Aliyah, according to this amendment. The Israeli Supreme court, in several judgments, during the late 80’s and early 90’s, ruled unfortunately that a person who is Jewish (according to the Halacha – son of a Jewish mother) but is Messianic Jewish (believes in Jesus / Yeshua) is part of another religion, Christianity, therefore can’t make Aliyah, according to the law of return. (If you are interested to read more about Aliyah for Messianic Jews, please read this article). This Supreme Court precedent has been challenged many times, but has been upheld for more than 30 years, so far. 

On the other hand, the amendment expanded the range of eligibility to include the family and direct descendants of Jews. Ever since 1970, the children and grandchildren of Jews, including their spouses and minor children, are eligible for Aliyah even if they are not Jewish themselves. 

The amendment to the Law of Return was intended to allow descendants of a Jewish person to receive the right to make Aliyah and the right to Israeli citizenship, based on the belief that anyone who would have been persecuted by the Nazis as a Jew has the right to move to the Jewish Homeland along with their family. 

Messianic Jews may still be able to make Aliyah and receive Israeli citizenship, under certain circumstances, as family members of Jews, as long as they are not Jewish themselves. (More information on Aliyah for family members is available in this article).  

In practice, this amendment allowed many who were not necessarily Jewish themselves, though they had Jewish roots, to make Aliyah. In particular, a relatively large portion of Former Soviet Union immigrants to Israel during the 1990’s and early 2000’s were family members of Jews, but not Jewish, according to the Jewish Definition. 

Smotrich’s initiative to amend the Law of Return: a raging discussion in the halls of the Knesset

At the end of this past August (2020) the general Knesset assembly erupted into chaos. Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, a member of the opposition, submitted a suggested bill to amend the Law of Return, intended to “preserve Israel’s Jewish character”. Part of the bill was a proposed amendment to the Law’s “grandchild clause”, under which a non-Jewish grandchild of a Jew would no longer receive the rights granted to Jews by the Law of Return. 

Smotrich explained: “the law in its current form allows grandchildren of Jews to receive rights of Olim, even if they — or sometimes even their parents — are not Jewish. This situation causes many people who have lost connection with the Jewish people to take advantage of the law, and in practice robs the law of its original meaning, which was to open the gates of the Jewish country to Jews of the Diaspora.”

The amendment bill is meant to reduce the rights of family members as currently defined by the Law of Return, and grant eligibility exclusively to the children of a Jewish person – not to their grandchildren. The goal of the amendment is to maintain the Jewish character of Israel and prevent the situation in which the Law of Return, intended for the Jewish Diaspora, enables the immigration of many non-Jews to Israel.

Smotrich goes on: “So that the immense self-sacrifice of our ancestors in the Diaspora will not be in vain, we must prevent a situation where even in our Jewish country, the Jewish people will be lost, will assimilate and disappear from history, as has happened to many nations who disappeared because they did not preserve their identity.”

Vehement opposition to the proposal from Knesset members 

Several members of Knesset strongly disagreed with Smotrich’s proposal. Avigdor Liberman’s response was not long in coming, as he said in reply to Smotrich: “Someone cannot be allowed to spew blasphemy and insults under the right of free speech.” Liberman went on to hurl a personal affront at Smotrich: “You have no connection to Judaism and all you are doing is harming it. What you are doing is inciting and creating rifts, you have no right to exist, you only incite hate and you have no message other than hate, your only message is hate and creating rifts within the Jewish people.” 

Smotrich responded: “Go to Tiv Ta’am on Shabbat, a demagogue is what you are, a demagogue.”

Adding to Liberman’s words, Yair Lapid hurled at Smotrich: “You are a racist and an ignoramus. You don’t understand anything about Jewish existence. You think you can define for us what the Jewish people are and who is a Jew. Who are you to decide whether or not they are Jews? Whether or not they are eligible to be citizens? Who are you and who are your rabbis? Arrogant people. There is not one Jewish soul among you or a bit of Jewish spirit in a single word you say.” 

In response Smotrich asked: “Yair, who is a Jew in your opinion?” 

The question remained unanswered, due to the demand by the Speaker of the Knesset, Yariv Levine, to end the discussion. 

Following the stormy discussion in the Knesset general assembly, Smotrich decided to pull his proposal, rather than holding the discussion in the eye of the storm, reserving the right to bring up the proposed bill at another opportunity, when he sees fit. In response to his retreat from the vote and withdrawal of the bill, voices were raised in the general assembly: “You are a craven, Smotrich, you’re a coward, if you had done combat service you would take it to a vote.”

The Law of Return – a central expression of Israel as a Jewish and democratic country

The amendment to the Law of Return proposed by Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich led to an undeniably heated discussion, because the Law of Return – which was called “the foundation stone of the state of Israel” by David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister – is a fundamental expression of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic country, and strikes a raw nerve for different sectors of the nation, including, as it turns out, the members of Knesset themselves. 

The fact is that the Law of Return has not been amended for over 50 years. Every time changes are proposed, the initiatives are blocked by the difficulty in creating an agreed-upon political coalition, due to the disagreements in the Knesset, which in turn express intense disagreements in Israeli society. Those who support restricting the Law of Return argue that, as MK Smotrich wrote in his explanation of the bill, the law in its current form allows the entrance of non-Jews (according to Jewish orthodox definition) to Israel and thereby changes the Jewish character (in their eyes) of the country. 

That being said, it is important to take into account that the Law of Return reflects a broad public consensus that it is proper to provide an “entrance key” to Israel, and to allow Aliyah of family members of Jews as well, even if they are not Jewish themselves according to the orthodox Halacha. Actually, it can be argued and a survey has been conducted in the past that shows that a majority of the Israeli public would not oppose to the idea of Aliyah for those who are Messianic Jewish.  

Such new Olim usually assimilate themselves well into Israeli culture and society, serve in the IDF and contribute to the country just as any other citizens, regardless of which clause in the Law of Return allowed them to make Aliyah, or how they define their Jewish identity.  

The heated discussion that arose in the Knesset over the proposed amendment to the Law of Return demonstrates that it is a sensitive issue, touching the roots of many citizens’ personal, Jewish, and collective identities. 

It seems that MK Smotrich’s individual bill was intended primarily, from his point of view, to expose the disagreements that exist in the current Israeli coalition government, regarding issues of religion and state. In any case, any future change in the Law of Return will need to be done on the basis of a strong political coalition, expressing a broad public consensus.