Knesset votes to end passport-on-arrival policy for new immigrants

In less than a month, Interior Ministry to reinstate one-year residency requirement before issuing new Israeli passports to immigrants, rolling back policy to pre-2017 era

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

New immigrants from North America arrive at Ben Gurion airport on August 14, 2019. (Flash90)
New immigrants from North America arrive at Ben Gurion airport on August 14, 2019. (Flash90)

Starting July 10, immigrants who gain their Israeli citizenship through the Law of Return will have to prove their center of life is in the Jewish state before receiving their passports, ending the practice of passport on arrival.

Following a multi-hour filibuster staged by opposition parties, the Knesset passed a law that ends a legislative agreement the government made with the Yisrael Beytenu party in 2017 to allow immediate passports for new citizens who immigrate to Israel by claiming legally recognized Jewish heritage.

The Interior Ministry-sponsored change is expected to reinstate a one-year residency requirement to prove that Israel is the center of a new citizen’s life. Until then, new arrivals can receive temporary travel documents.

The law comes after Israel saw an influx of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants following Russia’s February 2022 invasion of its western neighbor.

An earlier version of the law was proposed by MK Yosef Taieb, whose ultra-Orthodox Shas party has been locked in bitter political battle with secularist Yisrael Beytenu. Yisrael Beytenu opposes Haredi attempts to place religious curbs on public life in Israel and has railed against government handouts for the community.

Touching on an issue of great significance to Yisrael Beytenu’s base of former Soviet state immigrants, Taieb has pushed for revoking the Law of Return’s so-called “grandchild clause,” which allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to qualify for Israeli citizenship, provided they are not actively practicing another religion.

MK Yosef Taieb, chair of the Knesset Education, Culture, and Sports Committee leads a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

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.

In January, Taieb told the Hebrew religious news site TOV that “the change is required” and that “it will be done.”

“We need to preserve the state as a Jewish state, both on a demographic level and on a values level,” he added.

Last November, the Knesset released data that said 72% of immigrants from former Soviet states between 1990 and 2020 were not considered Jewish by strict religious standards of descent. The report caused an uproar, with religious lawmakers across the political spectrum renewing calls to tighten Jewish immigration standards.

The Interior Ministry has said that the policy change will help crack down on abuses to the system, whereby immigrants take on Israeli citizenship to obtain a more favorable passport, but never actually settle in the country.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Minister of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver welcome more than 200 French Jews who immigrated to Israel aboard a special Jewish Agency Aliyah flight, July 20, 2016. (Nir Kafri for The Jewish Agency for Israel)

Last week, Gil Bringer, the deputy director general of the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, testified to a Knesset committee that he believed people took on Israeli citizenship to take advantage of expanded visa-free travel, which hurt the integrity of the passport.

“The strength of the Israeli passport erodes alongside the erosion of the connection between having an Israeli passport and the connection to State of Israel,” he said.

Bringer also said that his department found a correlation between immigrants remaining longer in Israel and longer waits for passport times, but did not provide a timeframe for his data or additional details.

An internal Population Authority presentation obtained by The Times of Israel shows that there is no meaningful difference in the percentage of immigrants remaining in Israel today, after having emigrated in 2015 — before the agreement granting passports on arrival — and 2017, when that agreement was implemented.

An Israeli passport on January 18, 2023. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

According to the data, some 63% of immigrants who arrived in 2015 and 66% of those who moved in 2016 still make their center of life in Israel today. Since 2017, it has oscillated between 61% and 69%.

The Population Authority determined center of life as spending at least 75% of one’s time in Israel since immigrating.

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.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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