'Any change on such sensitive issues could threaten our ties'

Leaders of top Zionist bodies warn Netanyahu against altering Law of Return

In highly irregular letter, heads of Jewish Agency, Jewish Federations, WZO and Keren Hayesod say they have ‘deep concern’ about plans by certain members of Israel’s new government

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

Illustrative: New immigrants from North America arrive on a flight arranged by the Nefesh B'Nefesh organization at Ben Gurion Airport, on August 14, 2019. (Flash90/ File)
Illustrative: New immigrants from North America arrive on a flight arranged by the Nefesh B'Nefesh organization at Ben Gurion Airport, on August 14, 2019. (Flash90/ File)

The heads of top international Zionist groups on Sunday sent a joint letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warning him against his incoming government’s plan to alter the Law of Return to restrict immigration to Israel by descendants of Jews who are not themselves Jewish.

The highly irregular missive stressed the importance of Jewish unity and raised “deep concern” that certain members of the incoming government could undermine that by altering “the long-standing status quo on religious affairs that could affect the Diaspora,” specifically the Law of Return.

The letter, which was sent on Sunday and publicized on Monday, was signed by a mix of Israelis and Diaspora leaders: Doron Almog, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency; Mark Wilf, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors; Steven Lowy, chairman of the World Board of Trustees of Keren Hayesod; Sam Grundwerg, world chairman of Keren Hayesod; Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America; Julie Platt, chairwoman of the JFNA; and Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization.

“It is our duty to share with you our deep concern regarding voices in the government on issues that could undermine the long-standing status quo on religious affairs that could affect the Diaspora,” the Jewish leaders wrote. “Any change in the delicate and sensitive status quo on issues such as the Law of Return or conversion could threaten to unravel the ties between us and keep us away from each other.”

The coalition deals signed by all parties of the incoming government agreed to make at least some change to the Law of Return, specifically to its so-called “grandchild clause,” which grants citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, provided they do not practice another religion.

The Orthodox parties in the incoming government have demanded the nullification of the clause, claiming that it allows too many non-Jews to immigrate, which threatens the Jewish identity of the state. This would disproportionately affect potential immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are more likely to request citizenship under this clause.

Acting chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Yaakov Hagoel, left, shakes hands with the nominee for the position, Doron Almog, outside the organization’s headquarters in Jerusalem on June 16, 2022. (Jewish Agency)

Netanyahu’s Likud party has resisted such a move, out of concern that it would alienate both Diaspora Jewry and Russian-speaking Israelis, a significant portion of whom vote for Likud.

In addition to the proposal to alter the Law of Return, the incoming government has also officially planned to further entrench ultra-Orthodox control over the Western Wall, in opposition to the long-frozen compromise plan brokered by the Jewish Agency that would have given greater recognition and control to non-Orthodox denominations.

It has also agreed to pass a law that would revoke recognition for non-Rabbinate conversions in Israel for the purposes of citizenship. Both of these would be tremendously unpopular among most Diaspora Jews, particularly those in the US.

The letter sent by the heads of these long-standing Zionist institutions represents something of an opening salvo in the expected clashes between the incoming government and the Diaspora, the likes of which have not been seen in years, since Netanyahu indefinitely halted the Western Wall compromise in 2017.

A number of prominent world Jewish leaders have raised similar concerns, generally about the incoming government and specifically about the Law of Return, but these have generally been representatives of groups with specific political views, whereas the signatories of Sunday’s letter represent large, legacy institutions, some of which are right-leaning, politically.

The World Zionist Organization’s Yaakov Hagoel poses for a picture at the WZO’s offices in Jerusalem, June 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Perhaps most surprising was the involvement of WZO chief Yaakov Hagoel, who leads the organization as head of World Likud, Netanyahu’s own party.

“We are determined to work together with you and your government to ensure the continued prosperity of the entire Jewish people, and we are sure that together we can find respectful, inclusive, and constructive solutions to every challenge at hand without harming the delicate fabric that holds us together as one united people,” the authors wrote.

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