Bid to scrap Law of Return grandchild clause likely to fail, but part of wider fight

Proposal by Netanyahu’s religious allies to limit immigration to those with a Jewish parent and converts unlikely to go ahead, though struggle over who is a Jew just heating up

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Jewish immigrants fleeing from war zones in Ukraine arrive at the Israeli immigration and absorption office, at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Jewish immigrants fleeing from war zones in Ukraine arrive at the Israeli immigration and absorption office, at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The far-right Religious Zionist party and ultra-Orthodox parties have issued a fresh demand in their coalition negotiations with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu — to remove the “grandchild clause” of Israel’s Law of Return and thereby to restrict immigration only to people born to Jewish parents, not those with a Jewish grandparent, or who have converted to Judaism.

Though not a new one, this proposal would mark a profound change to a rule that has been around for more than five decades, dramatically reducing immigration to Israel and potentially sparking a bitter fight with major international Jewish groups, like the Jewish Agency, who support the Law of Return in its current iteration.

It is seen as highly unlikely, though not impossible, that the demand will be realized as is. And it is sure to spark fresh, serious debate about the ever-contentious issue of “who is a Jew” as it relates to the State of Israel.

With exceedingly few exceptions, the Law of Return, which was first passed in 1950 and then amended in 1970, is what dictates Israel’s immigration policy, both in terms of who is granted citizenship and who Israel and Zionist organizations seek to entice to immigrate. The law guarantees citizenship for anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent or who has converted to Judaism.

The Religious Zionist and United Torah Judaism parties are seeking an amendment to the law that would restrict the criteria in order to significantly reduce the number of immigrants to Israel who are not Jewish according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. This would principally have a major influence on immigration from the former Soviet Union.

Though precise figures on this have not yet been released, such a change would have undoubtedly and dramatically reduced the number of people eligible to immigrate to Israel from Ukraine and Russia in the wake of the latter’s invasion of the former in February. To wit, the number of Jews in Russia is estimated to be less than 200,000, while there are twice as many non-Jews who are eligible for Israeli citizenship. The numbers are similar for Ukraine.

In this handout photo, United Torah Judaism No. 2 Moshe Gafni (R) and Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich meet at the Knesset, November 6, 2022. (Courtesy)

The Yisrael Beytenu party, whose base of support is mostly made up of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, has come out fiercely against the proposal.

“We will focus on fighting a change to the Law of Return, one of the bedrocks of Zionism. In our view, changing the Law of Return is like changing the anthem, the flag and all other symbols of the state,” Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman said in a statement Thursday.

Another member of the party, Evgeny Sova, said he had spoken with representatives from the Jewish Agency, who expressed “deep concerns about the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora” should this proposal go through. The organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposal.

The Jewish Agency, which works to encourage immigration to Israel, has however called the Law of Return a “remarkable law” and hailed the 1970 amendment as a way to keep families from being broken apart and to ensure that Israel remains a safe haven for those who are not Jewish but who nevertheless would be “subject to persecution because of their Jewish roots.”

Some parts of the Likud party, which also has a significant base of support of people from the former Soviet Union, would similarly oppose such a change to the Law of Return. This makes it not impossible for an amendment to be passed, but it would likely require the religious parties to make this a sine qua non in their coalition negotiations, for which they’d need to be willing to give up on other demands in order to see it passed.

Tani Frank, director of the Center for Judaism and State Policy at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a long-time activist on religion-state issues, doesn’t believe that they will be willing to put up such a strong fight over the Law of Return at this time.

Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman presents his party’s candidates for the upcoming elections at a campaign event in Tel Aviv, September 12, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“I think the Haredi parties see this as a [sacrificial] lamb,” Frank told The Times of Israel.

But beyond the parliamentary fight, activists are also gearing up for a battle over public opinion.

Alex Rif, who leads the One Million Lobby, which represents immigrants from the former Soviet Union, said her organization was prepared to “fight for the offspring of Jews around the world who see the State of Israel as the state of the Jews and as their safe homeland.”

A 2020 poll by the Jewish People Policy Institute found that a plurality of Jewish Israelis — 49 percent — believe the Law of Return, with its so-called “grandchild clause,” should be left as is.

Eleven percent supported restricting immigration to only children of Jews, not grandchildren, while nearly a quarter — 24 percent — said only people who are themselves Jewish should be permitted to freely immigrate. Six percent backed overturning the law entirely in favor of a more liberal, non-religion-specific immigration policy. The remaining 10 percent or so said they weren’t sure.

Why do they want to overturn the grandchild clause?

In 1950, Israel passed the Law of Return, which guaranteed that “every Jew has the right to come to this country as an Oleh,” a Hebrew term literally meaning an ascendant person that is used to signify a Jewish immigrant to Israel.

Twenty years later, the Knesset amended the law to include: “The child and grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.” The amendment also clarified that for the purposes of this law the term Jew applies to someone born to a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism — the Orthodox definition.

This more expansive definition of who is entitled to Israeli citizenship was supported even by religious lawmakers at the time. Speaking in the Knesset ahead of the vote on the 1970 amendment, Yisrael Shlomo Ben-Meir of the religious Zionist Mafdal party — the progenitor of the current Religious Zionist party — said the inclusion of people who are not Jewish according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law was a positive step as it gave equal rights to those with a “connection to the Jewish people,” with the hope that they would eventually “find their way into the embrace of their forefathers, join the Jewish people by the book, convert, and become part of us and strengthen our power in the land.”

The amendment was struck as a compromise between more religious parliamentarians and more secular, liberal ones. For the former, it enshrined in law that for religious purposes, a Jew is defined by Orthodox definition. For the more progressive lawmakers, it established that for the purposes of citizenship and Israeliness being Jewish-adjacent was enough. It also deliberately left the issue of conversion vague, saying only that for a person to be considered Jewish they must convert without specifying that it must be in an Orthodox fashion. (This ambiguity led the High Court of Justice to rule that Reform and Conservative conversions, in Israel and abroad, are sufficient for Israeli citizenship, much to the rabbinate’s consternation.)

There is a widely held belief that the 1970 amendment, with its “grandchild clause,” was inspired by the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, which established that anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent would be considered Jewish under Germany’s racial purity laws. This narrative is incorrect historically but is nevertheless almost universally accepted as true and is regularly repeated by politicians today, matching the viewpoint that Israel is meant to serve as a haven for Jews against antisemitism, so “if you’re Jewish enough for the Nazis, you’re Jewish enough for Israel” — as many have phrased it over the years.

The first significant grumblings over the so-called “grandchild clause” came about in the early 1990s following the fall of the Iron Curtain and the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Israel from the Soviet Union. By some accounts, roughly a third of these immigrants were not Jewish according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law.

Around half a million citizens of Israel are officially considered to be of “no religion,” up from 100,000 in 1996. They are not Jewish according to Orthodox Judaism, but neither are they a part of any other religion, leaving them in an at-times Kafka-esque limbo. For a wide variety of reasons, the Chief Rabbinate has failed to entice large numbers of these Israelis of “no religion” to convert to Judaism.

In a country like Israel, which does not have civil marriage or divorce, this represents a major issue. For that large and growing population itself, there is a denial of basic rights, while some religious Jews see these non-Jewish Israelis as a threat to so-called “Jewish continuity,” that Jewish men and women would marry non-Jews and their offspring would either also not be Jewish according to Orthodox law or otherwise be distanced from Judaism.

There are studies that indicate that this is not necessarily the case — a recent poll by Rif’s One Million Lobby found that 94% of Russian-speaking Israelis identify as Jewish, for instance — but these are very real concerns.

These fears were first expressed in Israeli politics in the early 1990s with the arrival of immigrants from the Soviet Union, but the discussions ultimately led nowhere.

However, as the number of non-Jewish Israelis has grown and grown, adding stress to Israel’s already fraught and arguably untenable religion-state divide, even progressive figures have recognized the need for discussion on the Law of Return.

This summer, the liberal Zionist Shalom Hartman Institute held a full-day conference on the topic, inviting speakers from across the political spectrum.

“The question is how do we prevent a greater rift in the Jewish world. I wish the debate over the ‘grandchild clause’ was a real debate. It’s a debate that is bigger than just being about the Law of Return. The debate is about who today has the right to be a significant part of the Jewish people,” said Minister of Intelligence Elazar Stern at the conference.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the head of the institute, stressed that in discussing the matter it was important to separate Jewishness from Israeliness and also to take a pluralistic approach to the former.

“The State of Israel is not a synagogue, and Judaism is not the property of one political party,” he said.

In addition to the obvious effect that the cancellation of the “grandchild clause” would have on future immigration, Frank said that it would also send a harsh message to the hundreds of thousands of people who entered Israel using that clause: That in the eyes of the government they are a mistake of history.

Following the conference, the Shalom Hartman Institute issued a policy paper advocating a new proposal for the Law of Return, one that offered a tiered immigration system, granting immediate citizenship to people who are Jewish according to Orthodox law and a path to citizenship to the children and grandchildren of Jews, as well as others who either have a connection to Judaism and Israel or are persecuted for having Jewish heritage.

Another fight with the Diaspora

This is also yet another area in which this government is putting itself on a collision course with Diaspora Jewry, specifically American Jewry, which has put considerable effort and resources into supporting and encouraging immigration to Israel among all who are eligible, not just those who are Jewish according to Orthodox law.

Outgoing Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai noted in a tweet the tone-deafness of announcing the demand the day before the anniversary of Kristallnacht, one of the opening events of the Holocaust.

“This proposal, coming on the day that the world marks Kristallnacht, shows the basic lack of understanding of the relationship between Israel and the Jewish people in the Diaspora. The Law of Return is a bedrock of the State of Israel, of the state of the Jewish people. An evil wind is blowing through the halls of the future government, and we need to stop it,” Shai said.

Whether or not this coalition revokes the “grandchild clause,” it will surely lead to a renewed, fiery debate over how much the Venn diagram of Jewishness and Israeliness overlaps, if the Israeli government has a broad definition of Jewish peoplehood or a narrow one.

When this issue was first raised in the early 1990s, the then-minister of immigrant absorption, Yair Tzaban, warned his fellow lawmakers in 1995 of unintended consequences of messing with the Law of Return, comparing it to cholent, a traditional stew that is prepared on Friday before Shabbat but only tasted the following day.

“This topic is like cholent: You know what you put into the oven, but you don’t know what you are taking out of the oven.”

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