ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 150

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Even among its advocates, changing the Law of Return proves trickier than expected

Lobbying group for Russian-speaking Israelis holds fierce debate on cutting the ‘grandchild clause,’ with all sides acknowledging that it won’t happen fast

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

From right, MK Ze'ev Elkin, One Million Lobby CEO Alex Rif, manager of the alternative Orthodox conversion program Giyur K'Halacha Yael Belenky, Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, Afula Chief Rabbi Shmuel David and journalist Yair Sherki discuss the Law of Return at a conference in Ramat Gan on January 25, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
From right, MK Ze'ev Elkin, One Million Lobby CEO Alex Rif, manager of the alternative Orthodox conversion program Giyur K'Halacha Yael Belenky, Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, Afula Chief Rabbi Shmuel David and journalist Yair Sherki discuss the Law of Return at a conference in Ramat Gan on January 25, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Lawmakers, rabbis and activists debated the Law of Return and the government’s plans to restrict it on Wednesday night, with even supporters of the proposed change acknowledging that the issue is complicated and requires further discussion before an amendment can be made.

Religious parties in the coalition have pushed for the cancelation of the so-called “grandchild clause” of the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent provided they don’t practice another religion. The religious parties — the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, and the national-religious Otzma Yehudit, Noam and Religious Zionism — argue that since many of the people immigrating to Israel under this clause are not Jewish according to most interpretations of Jewish law, it weakens the “Jewish character” of the state.

Opposition lawmakers, including Orthodox ones, have come out fiercely against changing the Law of Return, and the Likud party has resisted the move, pushing instead for at least a more nuanced amendment.

To debate the topic, the One Million Lobby, which represents the more than one million Russian-speaking citizens of Israel, organized a conference in Ramat Gan’s College of Law and Business, bringing together researchers, activists, rabbis and politicians from both the government and the opposition.

Under the coalition agreements, the government is required to form a committee to hash out a bill to amend the Law of Return within 60 days and get it passed before the budget is approved by the end of March.

Yet Culture Minister Miki Zohar, a top member of Likud, told the conference attendees that in light of the topic’s complexities, the government will almost certainly not abide by that timetable.

“Don’t worry, we won’t follow through on that clause [of the coalition deals] at least. We’ll take a lot more time than 60 days,” Zohar said.

Eliminating the “grandchild clause” would primarily affect would-be immigrants from the former Soviet Union, largely due to cultural norms in those countries in which ethnicity is patrilineal, despite the fact that, under Jewish law, Jewishness is passed down from the mother. (This likely explains why the Likud party is hesitant to change the law, as many of its voters hail from the former Soviet Union and support the Law of Return in its current form.)

Culture and Sport Miki Zohar at the ministry offices in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yet the Law of Return and its grandchild clause have profound symbolic significance beyond the practical implications. As the law is the basis for Israeli citizenship, it is also seen by many as a gatekeeper for entrance into Jewish peoplehood, a concept that extends beyond religious definitions of Jewishness. It is also a kind of mirror image of the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, which determined that anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent would be considered Jewish even if they practiced a different religion (in this they differed from the Law of Return). This has led to stiff opposition from American and international Jewish groups, including those that are normally mum on issues of Israeli domestic politics.

Still, the participants in the conference — both supporters and opponents of changing the Law of Return — all agreed that the current state of affairs is untenable.

There are nearly 500,000 Israelis who are officially listed as being of “no religion” — those who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return but are not Jewish according to Jewish law nor do they follow another religion, and their offspring. These Israelis face significant challenges, both logistically and socially. Because Israel has no civil marriage, Israelis of “no religion” cannot marry Jewish partners in the country and are forced instead to hold their weddings abroad. They also cannot be buried alongside their Jewish partners. (Many Israelis of “no religion” would never reach this situation, as a sizable majority of Jewish Israelis oppose interfaith marriage, a recent survey showed.)

Where the two sides differed was in what to do with this situation.

Those who opposed changing the Law of Return — National Unity party MK Ze’ev Elkin, Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky, One Million Lobby founder and CEO Alex Rif, and manager of the alternative Orthodox conversion program Giyur K’Halacha Yael Belenky — maintained that doing so would further alienate not only the nearly half-million Israelis of “no religion,” but Israelis from the former Soviet Union in general, that it would represent a violation of a more than 50-year-old compromise between Israel and the Diaspora, that it would open the door to further changes to the once-sacred Law of Return, and that doing so would not significantly affect the situation.

After 70 years, it is a miracle — a true miracle — that 94% of Russian-speaking Israelis say they feel Jewish

Elkin, Malinovsky, Rif and Belenky all noted that while Israelis of “no religion” may not be Jewish according to Jewish law, or halacha, they nevertheless consider themselves to be Jewish. Indeed, a survey by the One Million Lobby found that 94 percent of Russian-speaking Israelis said they identify as Jewish, even though only 74 percent said they are considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate.

They all advocated changing the way conversions are performed in Israel — while still keeping them in accordance with Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law — adapting them to fit the lifestyles and mindsets of Russian-speaking Israelis.

Rif noted that a survey by her group found that a significant percentage of Israelis of “no religion” — 45% — said they would be interested in conversion if the process were made more “respectful.” She said there was a profound lack of appreciation in Israel for the fact that the Soviet Union oppressed Jews and suppressed Judaism for nearly three-quarters of a century.

“After 70 years, it is a miracle — a true miracle — that 94% of Russian-speaking Israelis say they feel Jewish,” she said.

Malinovsky, perhaps the fiercest defender of maintaining the Law of Return as is, said that altering the law, “even changing a comma,” would “undermine the foundation of the State of Israel,” as it would limit immigration, or aliyah, to Israel.

“Maybe someone who makes aliyah through the Law of Return isn’t Jewish according to halacha. That’s perfectly ok. It has always been this way,” she said. “Israel is not a religious state. I don’t want to live in Israel according to Jewish law. Maybe others do, but I don’t.”

Malinovsky added that the fears expressed by proponents of changing the Law of Return — that Israelis who are not Jewish according to halacha weaken the “Jewish character” of the state — were unfounded.

“We need to get out of this Diaspora mentality. We have our own country now. We are strong enough that our identity is not up for debate,” Malinovsky said, drawing applause from the few dozen people who attended the conference, many of whom appeared to be from the former Soviet Union.

Elkin, once a prominent member of the Likud party, stressed that many people from Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union considered themselves to be Jewish even if they weren’t according to halacha.

Elkin, who immigrated to Israel in 1990 from what’s now Ukraine, said that this included many members of the Soviet Jewry underground, who fought for the rights of Jews to immigrate to Israel and to practice their faith freely.

Minister of Housing and Construction Ze’ev Elkin attends a conference in Modi’in, December 5, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

He strenuously warned against altering the Law of Return, saying that doing so would open the door to further alterations, including those that the current government might oppose.

“Touching the Law of Return is a mistake. There’s a reason why this law hasn’t been touched for 50 years,” he said. “If you touch it once, then someone else will touch it.”

The Law of Return was first passed in 1950, saying simply that any Jew had a right to immigrate to Israel, but deliberately leaving the definition of who is a Jew open to interpretation. In 1970, in light of pressure from religious Zionists, the law was amended to define a Jew as anyone born to a Jewish mother or who converted. However, as a compromise, it left the nature of those conversions vague, not requiring them to be Orthodox, and it also allowed the children and grandchildren of Jews — as well as their spouses and children — to immigrate to Israel.

“Changing it would be a violation of that compromise,” Elkin said.

He also warned that altering the Law of Return would send a harsh message to Diaspora communities.

“‘The people who you consider to be part of your community, in our minds they don’t even have a right to be here,'” he said. “That would be a serious severance.”

What I want is the law that’s the most correct for 2023. What was correct in 1970 was correct then. Things have changed. Maybe the most correct thing for today really is not to touch it, but we’ll only know after real discourse and discussion and debate and efforts to understand one another

The most forceful proponent of amending the Law of Return was Heritage Minister Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu, of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

Eliyahu said he wanted to “keep Israel Jewish” and that while he was sympathetic to those who consider themselves to be Jewish and earnestly want to be part of the Jewish people, he believed that there were many immigrants coming to Israel for economic reasons.

“Those who want to come here for the tax breaks — I don’t want them,” he said.

He acknowledged the need for further debate on the topic in order to allow people who have a true connection to Israel and the Jewish people to immigrate even if they are not Jewish according to halacha.

Belenky somewhat punctured the point made by Eliyahu and other proponents of canceling the “grandchild clause,” who claim that many immigrants do so for economic reasons.

“The people who support changing the Law of Return, who say that there are immigrants coming here just for tax breaks, I wonder if we are living in the same country. Israel is a country that’s hard to live in, it’s a country with a high cost of living. It’s a country where many immigrants from the former Soviet Union feel like they are second-class citizens,” Belenky said.

Rabbi Shmuel David, the chief rabbi of the city of Afula, who said he supported amending the Law of Return in principle, lamented the fact that the public discourse about the topic had become “a disaster” and that it was particularly hurtful to Israelis from the former Soviet Union.

“It’s hurtful discourse. It becomes ‘us and them’ or ‘them and me.’ That can’t happen,” he said.

David said he was initially far more supportive of revoking the “grandchild clause” but now recognized that the issue was far, far more complex. He bore this out by listing various scenarios that collectively did not fit into a neat set of criteria for new legislation.

“If it’s someone who wants to immigrate and their grandfather lives in Israel, then I’m in favor of it because it’s family unification. But what if the grandfather is dead? What if the grandfather still lives in Russia? Then what? Just because of that, the grandchild shouldn’t be able to immigrate? But wait, what if it’s someone who fought for their Jewishness — like Knesset member Elkin mentioned — even if they aren’t Jewish according to halacha, but they fought for their Jewishness and maybe were even oppressed for it, of course, that person should be let in? But what about someone who just feels Jewish, maybe they weren’t oppressed for it, but just felt Jewish their whole life?” David said.

“Even if I understand the challenges of the ‘grandchild clause,’ I don’t think you can cancel it. Maybe amend it. We need to think of all the different aspects of this. I’ve only listed a few,” he said.

“What I want is the law that’s the most correct for 2023. What was correct in 1970 was correct then. Things have changed. Maybe the most correct thing for today really is not to touch it, but we’ll only know after real discourse and discussion and debate and efforts to understand one another.”

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