'If they do it or don't, the seed of hate has been planted'

Speaking in dire terms, MKs warn incoming coalition against altering Law of Return

In ’emergency conference’ at the Knesset, lawmakers from across the political spectrum say revoking the ‘grandchild clause’ would profoundly damage the Israel-Diaspora relationship

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

Knesset members hold a session on immigration and Israel's relationship with the Diaspora on December 13, 2022. (Courtesy)
Knesset members hold a session on immigration and Israel's relationship with the Diaspora on December 13, 2022. (Courtesy)

Knesset members and ministers from the outgoing coalition held an “emergency conference” in the parliament Tuesday on the issues of immigration and Israel’s ties with world Jewry, speaking about both in near-apocalyptic terms in light of proposals to alter Israel’s Law of Return.

Though it is unclear if such legislation would actually pass, the religious parties in the presumed next government have demanded the cancellation of the so-called “grandchild clause” of the Law of Return, which effectively guarantees citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent so long as they do not practice another religion.

The proposal has been fiercely denounced by politicians from the outgoing coalition, as well as by top officials in international Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Agency and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who have warned that such a move could cause irreparable damage to Israel’s ties to communities in the Diaspora.

Their warnings were reiterated by the ministers and Knesset members who spoke at the conference, including Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin.

One of the organizers, Labor’s Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi, said that whether the provision actually passes is already beside the point. “If they do it or don’t, the seed of hate has been planted, and we will see it in the next government if not in this,” he said.

The parties calling for the change, chiefly the Religious Zionism party, consider the immigration of non-Jews to Israel to be a threat to the country’s demographics and to what they see as its Jewish identity.

The conference was organized by Kariv, Yesh Atid’s Vladimir Beliak, and Yisrael Beytenu’s Evgeny Sova, with lawmakers from a variety of parties attending, as well as representatives from organizations involved in immigration and Israel-Diaspora relations.

From left, MK Evgeny Sova, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov, MK Vladimir Beliak, and MK Gilad Kariv, pose for a photograph ahead of a conference on immigration and Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora in the Knesset on December 13, 2022. (Courtesy)

The resounding message from the speakers, most of whom came from the left and center of the political spectrum, was that limiting the Law of Return would alienate World Jewry, sending a message to the children and grandchildren of Jews that they are unwanted and that any identification they may feel with Judaism is false.

“Whoever raises a hand against the ‘grandchild clause’ raises a hand against the future of the Jewish people,” Kariv said.

Michaeli, the Labor party leader, similarly warned that such a move would cut off masses of people who identify as Jews and who have a connection to Israel and Judaism.

Whoever raises a hand against the ‘grandchild clause’ raises a hand against the future of the Jewish people

“The Law of Return is the door to the Jewish people. Who would lock that door to half of the Jewish people?” she said.

The current version of the Law of Return was passed in 1970 following extensive Knesset debate and with the support of the religious Zionist party of the day, Mafdal. Though the inclusion of grandchildren of Jews in the pool of those eligible for Israeli citizenship is often considered to be a nod to the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, which also considered anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to be a Jew, Kariv noted in his speech that Nuremberg was not actually cited in any of the Knesset debates about the law.

“What is seen in those debates is that the definition of who is Jewish according to Jewish law cannot be the definition of who is Israeli or who is eligible for citizenship,” Kariv said.

Elkin, who was born and raised in Ukraine and is far from a left-winger, stressed that in the Soviet Union and now in the countries that have replaced it, many people who are not Jewish according to Jewish law — meaning those who were born to a Jewish mother or who converted — nevertheless consider themselves to be Jewish and are considered to be Jewish in their societies.

They identify as Jewish. Now go tell them they can’t come here

“Members of the ‘third generation’ are part of the community. I invite anyone to go to an event put on by the Jewish Agency in the former Soviet Union and see how many are third-generation. They’re not going because of aliyah [immigration to Israel], they go because it’s their community,” said Elkin.

“In the former Soviet Union, if you see someone with a Jewish name, they’re probably not Jewish according to Jewish law. But they identify as Jewish. Now go tell them they can’t come here,” he said.

Elkin — a longtime member of Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and an Orthodox Jew who now serves in the center-right National Unity Party — noted that Likud’s Ukrainian-born MK Yuli Edelstein has spoken out against the proposed change, calling him “the only pious man in Sodom.”

Elkin, who was active in the Jewish underground before the fall of the Soviet Union, said that he was shocked to see how many of his fellow Zionist activists later converted to Judaism because they were not considered Jewish by Jewish law, even though they were willing to sacrifice their health and freedom for Soviet Jewry.

If the law were to change, he said, many of them would not be allowed to immigrate.

File: Then-Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin attends Sukkot prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, on September 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Changing the Law of Return is dramatic and it’s important to know what the consequences will be,” Elkin said. “This will have repercussions on every non-Orthodox Jewish community in the Diaspora.”

One opposition lawmaker, Rabbi Yossi Taieb of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, attended the event. The French-born Taieb, who has served on the Knesset’s Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs, lauded Kariv, Beliak, and Sova for organizing the event, saying how important the topic was. His presence at the conference was, in turn, praised by the organizers, who also noted his parliamentary work on the issue.

“When it comes to immigration and absorption, there is no coalition and no opposition,” he said.

MK Yosef Taieb arrives for the opening session of the new Knesset, on November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Taieb, however, said the issue of the Law of Return should be discussed behind closed doors in order to reach a compromise. He added that he believed the root of the issue was not the Law of Return but interfaith marriages, which he said the State of Israel should put more resources toward preventing in the first place.

In his speech, Sova also noted the issue of interfaith marriages but considered them to be the reason why Israel should keep the Law of Return as it is, not change it.

“If you want to fight intermarriage, you must bring the children [of interfaith marriages] to Israel. Here their Jewish identity will be strengthened,” he said.

Ze’ev Hanin, a Bar Ilan University professor and the chief scientist of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, echoed Sova’s views, saying Israel was one of the few places with “reverse assimilation.”

“It takes between three to seven years for immigrants to go through ‘Israelization’ or ‘Jewification,'” Hanin said.

After that point, the overwhelming majority — over 80 percent — consider themselves “part of the Jewish people,” he said. “Only Israel has reverse assimilation, where children of interfaith marriages get closer to Judaism.”

A long-time researcher into immigration, particularly from the former Soviet Union, Hanin said that he believed that revoking the “grandchild clause” would not only affect the “third generation” but deter the “second generation” from immigrating as well.

Though the conference was well attended by parliamentarians, there was a noted lack of representation from one of the most significant organizations involved in immigration to Israel: the Jewish Agency.

Though a Jewish Agency representative was scheduled to attend, they apparently called in sick at the last minute, which Kariv described as an excuse, chastising the organization for it.

“I have worked with the Jewish Agency long enough. If someone calls in sick, someone else could have come in their place,” Kariv said. “I call on the Jewish Agency and other international Jewish organizations and civil society groups to present a unified front in this fight.”

Liberman, the finance minister, also noted the silence of one of Soviet Jewry’s greatest champions, former Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who served as a mentor of sorts to Avi Maoz, a far-right MK who is due to take control over Nativ, which oversees immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Maoz has repeatedly spoken out against immigration by non-Jews to Israel, raising concerns he could use Nativ, which operates as part of the Prime Minister’s Office, to make it more difficult for non-Jewish applicants to get approved.

“I’m a little disappointed over the silence of Sharansky,” Liberman said. “He knows Avi Maoz well. Maybe he could have an influence.”

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