Chief rabbi calls for government to change immigration law to keep non-Jews out

Speaking at New Jersey event, David Lau echoes comments by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who said incoming government could offer chance to ‘amend the law on who is a Jew’

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

Chief Rabbi David Lau speaks at a Chabad event in New Jersey on November 20, 2022. (Screen capture: Chabad)
Chief Rabbi David Lau speaks at a Chabad event in New Jersey on November 20, 2022. (Screen capture: Chabad)

Chief Rabbi David Lau called on Sunday for the incoming government to revoke the so-called “grandchild clause” from the Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent who does not practice another religion.

“For 10 years I have been asking to try to change this mistake of the third generation in the Law of Return — to fix it, to ensure that Israel will be a Jewish state, a state of Jews,” Lau said.

Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi made the remarks at an annual event in New Jersey on Sunday night honoring Chabad emissaries, who serve in communities around the world on behalf of the Hasidic movement.

In his speech, Lau also boasted of his intransigence on the issue of conversions to Judaism, as the previous government sought to reform the process. In an apparent act of protest against those reforms, Lau dramatically reduced the number of conversions that his office recognized.

“I have had the honor in the past year of being the emissary of the rebbe [the late leader of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson] and to continue in his great footsteps of ensuring that conversion will be done in accordance with Jewish law,” Lau said.

Earlier this month, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef urged the likely incoming government to pass a bill allowing the Knesset to override High Court of Justice rulings, declaring Israel an “Orthodox state.”

Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef speaks at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem on September 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Yosef said that the so-called override bill was “an opportunity to amend the law on who is a Jew.” Speaking during his weekly sermon, the rabbi claimed that Israel “is an Orthodox state, not a Reform one,” accusing Reform Judaism of “causing assimilation abroad.”

“You have to [pass] the override clause to overcome these High Court rulings,” he said.

The two chief rabbis of Israel are public officials whose salaries are paid by the state and who are not supposed to intervene in political affairs. After Yosef’s comments, Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman called for him to be fired from his position.

The expected future government led by prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to be made up of Likud alongside the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties and the far-right religious Religious Zionism party.

All four parties have indicated a desire to pass a so-called override law, enabling the Knesset to knock down High Court rulings that they claim subvert the will of the people and limit what they believe is the court’s activism. Such a bill is expected to be a key element of the coalition agreements signed between the parties.

Ukrainian immigrants to Israel who fled fighting in Ukraine arrive on a rescue flight at Ben Gurion Airport, on March 17, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Shas, UTJ and Religious Zionism have all indicated a desire to change the Law of Return to limit the number of people eligible for immigration to Israel who are not considered Jewish under Orthodox law. This would principally have a major influence on immigration from the former Soviet Union.

Some parts of the Likud party, which has a significant base of support from immigrants from the former Soviet Union, are expected to oppose such a change to the Law of Return.

Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir, who ran with Religious Zionism and split off earlier this week, has said he will also seek to end recognition of Reform conversions for the purposes of citizenship. The Haredi parties have long supported only allowing Orthodox conversions to Judaism to be recognized in any official manner.

Major US Jewish groups have issued rare warnings against such efforts, which they say could alienate major swaths of Diaspora Jewry.

William Daroff, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — who has been careful not to publicly criticize the incoming government — said last week that “the Law of Return is a bedrock of Zionism.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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