Israelis split on whether Diaspora Jews should weigh in on changes to Law of Return

Poll finds more people think foreign Jews should be part of debate on proposal to revoke ‘grandchild clause,’ but lots don’t know; most think such a move would cut immigration

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

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

Israelis are deeply split, primarily along religious lines, about a proposal to alter the Law of Return, the 1970 legislation that largely sets Israel’s immigration policies, as well as over the question of who should even be part of the debate about it, according to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank that was released Wednesday.

The religious parties in the government coalition — the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, and national-religious Otzma Yehudit, Noam and Religious Zionism factions — have all demanded the cancellation of the so-called grandchild clause, which guarantees citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent provided they don’t practice another religion. They 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.

Cutting the “grandchild clause” would disproportionately and primarily affect would-be immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are more likely to make use of the provision, largely due to cultural norms in those countries under which ethnicity is passed down patrilineally, despite the fact that Jewishness is traditionally passed down from the mother.

The Likud party, which has many supporters from the former Soviet Union, resisted the demands during coalition negotiations but eventually agreed to form a committee that would consider legislation to amend the Law of Return.

Opponents of the proposal in Israel, including several prominent right-wing politicians, warn that changing the Law of Return would critically damage Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry. Leaders of American and international Jewish groups have strenuously warned against cutting the “grandchild clause” and vowed to fight the move.

IDI’s survey dealt not only with the proposal itself but with the question of who Israelis believe has a right to take part in it, as well as two ancillary issues: Israelis’ opinions on interfaith marriages and on conversions to Judaism. The inclusion of the latter is because proponents of maintaining the Law of Return, as is, argue that easing the conversion process would encourage more people who are eligible for citizenship but not Jewish to convert, alleviating the issue of the “Jewish character” of the state.

The poll was published ahead of a conference on the Law of Return that was organized by the One Million Lobby, an advocacy group that represents around 1 million Russian-speaking Israelis.

The survey found significant divides on the proposal, on its goals and ramifications, as well as on who should be able to take part in the discussions, primarily on religious lines.

Of the 621 Jewish Israelis polled, 46 percent said that representatives of Diaspora Jewry should be included in Knesset debates on the Law of Return, while 40% said they shouldn’t, and 14% said they weren’t sure.

This largely held true across political and religious lines, with only two groups having more opposition than support for Diaspora Jewry’s involvement in the discussions: Arab Israelis, who were 51% opposed, 27% in favor and 22% unsure; and ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Israelis, who were 55% opposed, 37% in favor and 8% unsure.

Secular and “traditional non-religious” Israelis were wary of the stated explanation for why religious parties were pushing for the law change, with 51% and 41%, respectively, doubting that “the proposed cancellation of the ‘grandchild clause’ in the Law of Return is intended to maintain the Jewish majority in Israel.”

Roughly three-quarters of Haredi, national-religious and “traditional religious” Israelis believed this was the reason.

President Isaac Herzog, bottom right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to his left, pose for a group picture of the new government at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Similarly, secular and “traditional non-religious” Israelis were more likely to say that revoking the “grandchild clause” would “damage the Zionist principle of absorbing immigration and gathering the exiles.”

Nearly all of those polled said that altering the Law of Return would reduce immigration to Israel, or aliyah, save for Haredi respondents, 63% of whom said it wouldn’t. Canceling the “grandchild clause” would almost certainly result in a drop in immigration, likely a small one, but a statistically significant one nonetheless.

The survey found support among Jewish Israelis for easing the conversion process for Israeli citizens who are not considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate, with 50% of those surveyed saying they were in favor compared to 42% who were opposed.

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, and their offspring. Each year some 2,000 people convert to Judaism through the current system.

A recent poll conducted by the One Million Lobby found that 45% of Israelis of “no religion” would consider converting to Judaism if the process were eased somewhat, while still keeping it in line with Orthodox standards. Primarily, this would mean removing things like the requirement that the potential convert’s romantic partners also adopt a religious lifestyle and that children study in religious schools or more generally making the process more “respectful.”

Illustrative: An Israeli rabbinical court reviews a conversion case. (Flash90)

Haredi respondents were almost uniformly opposed to changing the conversion process, with 92% saying they were against it. National-religious and traditional religious Israelis were also opposed, but to a lesser extent, with roughly two-thirds saying they were against changing the process, compared to a third in favor. Most “traditional non-religious” and secular Israelis were in favor of changing the process. Among secular Israelis, 77% supported it.

Israelis who are not considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate face significant challenges in Israel, both logistically and socially. Because Israel has no civil marriage, Israelis of “no religion” cannot marry their Jewish partners in the country and are forced instead to hold their weddings abroad. They also would not be able to be buried alongside their Jewish partners.

But many Israelis of “no religion” would never reach this situation, as the majority of Jewish Israelis oppose interfaith marriage, the IDI survey showed.

The vast majority of Haredi, national-religious, traditional religious and traditional non-religious Israelis said they would be “disturbed if a male or female member of your family married someone who is not Jewish according to halacha but grew up in Israel.” Secular Israelis were the only group with a majority — 70% — saying they would not be “disturbed” if that happened.

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