Jerusalem Letters of Lasting Interest
No. 318 18 Tamuz 5755 / 16 July 1995
THE LAW OF RETURN RECONSIDERED
A Cardinal Tenet of Zionism / When is a Jew Not a Jew? /
When is a Non-Jew a Jew? / Debate on Changing the Law of
A Cardinal Tenet of Zionism
Israel's Law of Return is a cardinal tenet of Zionism.
Passed unanimously by the Knesset in 1950, it served as the
enabling legislation for the Zionist vision of a Jewish homeland.
It explicitly states that "every Jew has the right to come to
[Israel] as an oleh (immigrant)."
The Law of Return may have been the unanimous decision of
the Knesset back in 1950, but it has been a source of debate and
controversy ever since. The need for this legislation and the
rationale behind it seemed simple and obvious. In the wake of
the horror of the Holocaust, this law was meant to ensure the
right of every Jew to find refuge and to build a new life in the
Jewish homeland. Indeed, the Law of Return was the infant
state's conditioned response to the British White Paper of 1939,
which slammed shut the gates of Palestine and doomed the Jews of
However, never did the framers of this law imagine how much
controversy and debate it would generate. For the most part, the
debate was not over the intent of the law. Indeed, up until
recently, there was virtually unanimous agreement that this was
the axiomatic definition of a Jewish state. Rather, the problems
arose out of the need to define who is a Jew in order to
determine who qualifies under the terms of the Law of Return. In
fact, the controversy over the Law of Return is probably better
known as the "Who is a Jew?" controversy.
In the late 1980s this legislation created a crisis in the
relationship between American Jewry and Israel. The attempt by
the ultra-Orthodox political parties to amend the Law of Return
was seen as a ploy to delegitimize Conservative and Reform
The acrimony and bitterness engendered by that controversy
have left their mark. Ever since then, Israeli leaders have
avoided even the slightest revision or amendment of the Law of
Return so as not to open up the issue. However, recent events
have once again created controversy in regard to the Law of
When is a Jew Not a Jew?
Israeli newspapers reported at the end of December 1994 that
churches in Nazareth were full to overflowing due to the large
influx of olim from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are be-
lieving and practicing Christians. If this were not enough, it
has been disclosed that hundreds of new olim have been coming in
from Iraqi Kurdistan, a Moslem area under UN control. Reportedly, up to 80 percent of these olim are believing and practicing
Moslems, and yet they qualify to enter Israel under the Law of
Return. Little wonder that rabbis, political leaders, and Jewish
Agency officials have reacted sharply to this incredible distortion of Israel's Zionist charter. The Law of Return, adopted by
the Knesset on the anniversary of the death of Zionism's
visionary Theodor Herzl, was meant to fulfill his dream of bringing a scattered people back to its homeland. It would be
difficult to construe that vision as including professing
Christians and faithful Moslems.
When David Ben-Gurion drafted this law in the shadow of the
Holocaust, the definition of who is a Jew seemed self-evident.
It meant that whomever the Nazis called a Jew and sent to the
death camps was to be offered refuge in the newly established
State of Israel. At that time, it seemed inconceivable that
anyone but a Jew would claim to be a Jew.
However, over the years questions arose about exactly who is
a Jew. Perhaps the most celebrated and notorious case was that
of Brother Daniel. Brother Daniel, born a Polish Jew named
Daniel Rufeisen, came to Israel as a Carmelite monk and requested
citizenship under the Law of Return. A landmark decision by
Israel's Supreme Court determined that a Jew who had of his own
free will adopted another faith was not eligible to enter Israel
under the Law of Return. By this ruling the law of the land
contradicted Jewish law, since according to rabbinic halakhah, a
Jew remains a Jew even if he is converted to another faith.
When is a Non-Jew a Jew?
Yet, despite this exclusion of converts, the Law of Return
has allowed thousands of non-Jews to enter and find homes in
Israel. Of the five hundred thousand plus immigrants from the
former Soviet Union since 1989, anywhere from 8 to 30 percent are
estimated to be non-Jews. Now, the reports that hundreds of
Moslems have been allowed to enter Israel under the Law of Return
has renewed the debate over the law. This seeming gross
distortion of a law meant to ensure a Jewish homeland for a
Jewish people stems from the inability to adequately define who
is a Jew.
The Law of Return as amended in 1970 vested the right of
immigration not only in a Jew defined as a person born of a
Jewish mother or who had converted to Judaism. The law also
granted the right of aliya to the children and grandchildren of
that Jew; to the non-Jewish spouses of Jews; to the non-Jewish
spouses of children of Jews; and even the non-Jewish spouses of
non-Jewish grandchildren of Jews. This in effect meant that if
someone could demonstrate that one of four grandparents had been
born a Jew, then he was entitled to come to Israel and receive
all the benefits of a new oleh. The absurdity of this situation
was seen in the latest immigration from the Moslem enclave.
According to a newspaper account, one Jewish woman from that area
was able to bring her entire extended family of 170 believing and
practicing Moslems. The chairman of the Knesset Aliya Committee,
Emanuel Zisman, related the case.
In 1950, a Jew from that Moslem country (Kurdistan)
emigrated to Israel together with his three sons, but
left behind his pregnant wife. The woman who was left
behind subsequently married a Moslem neighbor and gave
birth to a daughter. The daughter, being born of a
Jewish mother, later did emigrate to Israel. However,
the mother remained behind with her Moslem husband to
whom she bore nine sons, all of whom were given Moslem
names such as Ahmed, Mahmoud, Ali and Otman, and were
raised in the faith. All nine sons eventually married,
with several wives each. Recently, the Jewish sons who
had emigrated to Israel with their father sought out
their mother and requested that she and her family be
allowed to come to Israel. And indeed, under the Law
of Return, because the mother was Jewish, she was able
to bring with her 170 children, grandchildren and their
On the other hand, there are stories being circulated that
among these immigrants are authentic Jews who, for more than a
generation, have had to live outwardly as Moslems, hiding their
Jewish faith. One of these stories is that of a young Jew who
years ago was kidnapped from her family, married off to a Moslem
and forced to convert. Even her sons did not know that she was
originally Jewish. Only recently, with the possibility of
escape, was she able to reveal her secret to her sons, and to
come together with them and their families to seek haven and a
return to Judaism in Israel.
Little wonder that this recent immigration has renewed the
debate over the Law of Return. The debate also extends to the
recent immigration from Ethiopia, as well as the former Soviet
Union. In this debate, the political establishment is split, and
not necessarily on secular-religious lines. There are political
and religious officials who are saying that the law must be
changed, while there are others who believe that amending the law
will open up a Pandora's box and, therefore, should be avoided.
The Chief Rabbis of Israel are proposing to delete the line
in the law which grants rights to anyone with a Jewish
grandparent. Their amendment would allow immigration only to
someone with a Jewish parent, spouse or child. An even more
modest revision would at least require the grandparent to be
alive and to come to Israel with the children and grandchildren.
Under the present construction of the law, one only has to demonstrate that one had or has a Jewish grandparent somewhere in the
world to qualify to enter Israel under the Law of Return. The
move to a more restrictive definition of the law has been joined
by some of Israel's secular leaders. For example, Deputy Foreign
Minister Yossi Beilin has suggested that only non-Jewish relatives and spouses of a Jew who are prepared to convert to Judaism
be allowed to enter under the Law of Return.
It is interesting to note that despite the reports of church
attendance, missionary activity and the like, a recent survey
shows that fully 90 percent of immigrants from the former Soviet
Union firmly believe that they are Jewish.
Debate on Changing the Law of Return
The former acting head of the Jewish Agency, Yehiel Leket,
opposes these changes to the Law of Return, stemming from his
concern that the Orthodox rabbinate would once again use the
opportunity to delegitimize non-Orthodox brands of Judaism. To
revise the Law of Return would mean to revive the ugly debate
over who is a Jew, which so aroused the ire of the American
Jewish establishment. As one government minister put it, "To
amend the Law of Return is like making cholent. You put all the
ingredients in but you don't know what will come out of it."
Behind the move to block the non-Jewish relatives and spouses of
Jews from coming to Israel is also the religious community's fear
of strengthening the secularization of Israeli society.
Over the years there has always been resistance to changes
in the Law of Return. Last year, Member of Knesset Eli
Goldshmidt proposed, in the wake of the massacre in Hebron, to
amend the law to allow the Minister of Interior discretionary
power to refuse entry to Israel any Jew who espouses racism, as
did Dr. Baruch Goldstein. His proposal was quickly squelched as
infringing on a basic and fundamental Zionist principle. In
similar fashion, Minister of Labor and Welfare Ora Namir aroused
a storm of controversy when she complained that the Law of Return
allows indigent, elderly, and handicapped Jews from the former
Soviet Union to overburden Israel's social welfare system.
This debate on the Law of Return has been further heated by
public discussion on groups whose Jewish origin is difficult if
not impossible to document. Virtually every month there is
another group somewhere in the world that claims descent from one
of the ten lost tribes.
Close to 100 people have arrived in Israel from the northern
province of Manipur, India, claiming to be descended from the
tribe of Menashe. Other would-be Jews have arrived from Peru.
More recently, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that an African from
Nigeria did not qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return
despite his claim that his 10 million member Ibo tribe is
descended from the Israelite tribe of Ephraim. The arrival of
these newcomers, some of whom are undergoing conversion, has
raised the specter of millions of people from poor Third World
countries descending upon Israel, claiming descent from one of
the ten lost tribes. When the Black Hebrews of Dimona came from
the ghetto of Chicago, they represented little more than a
curiosity. They claimed that they were the original Israelite
people who were expelled from the Promised Land, which is
actually located in northeastern Africa. After many years,
Israel found an accommodation with the 1,200-1,500 Black Hebrews
who continue to live in the country. Somehow the Law of Return,
when it was framed, never took into consideration that Israel
would look so good to so many people. It has even given second
thoughts to those secularists who, in opposing a religious
definition of who is a Jew, insisted that anyone who claimed to
be a Jew should be recognized as such. This self-definition
might have been appropriate in the wake of the Holocaust when
Israel was a struggling, beleaguered state, but not as a prosperous, stable, and attractive society on the way to peace.
The debate on Israel's Law of Return and open door policy
also reflects Israel's changing attitudes to its responsibilities
toward diaspora Jewry. Most Israelis remain proud of the policy
which has afforded refuge to Jews escaping from Bosnia or
Ethiopia or Chechnya. Nevertheless, there is a growing negative
reaction to the perceived burden that these olim create. It is
not only Ora Namir's concern for her social welfare budget, but
also for various forms of asocial behavior attributed to the
immigrant population þ crime, prostitution, alcoholism, as well
as their lack of Jewish identity, national allegiance, and shared
sense of destiny. A recent poll shows that 51 percent of the
Israeli public thinks that there is no longer a need for the
State of Israel to accept additional immigrants.
Recently, even the voice of ecology was heard to question
the Law of Return. An article in an Israeli nature magazine
called upon the Israeli government to restrict immigration in
order to protect Israel's ecology. Revision of the Law of Return
is necessary to preserve this tiny land's natural resources and
If this were not enough, there are also voices coming from
Israel's Arab minority calling upon the state to cancel the Law
of Return because it is biased and discriminatory.
This assault on the Law of Return goes far beyond social
welfare issues, nature trails, and minority rights. It raises
some very profound questions about the character of Israel as a
Zionist and Jewish state. Little wonder that there is such
hesitation and resistance to opening up this controversy. There
are too many fears involved.
* * *
David Clayman is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public
Affairs and Director of the Israel Office of the American Jewish
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