In a letter published on Tuesday, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar instructed the Population and Immigration Authority and the Jewish Agency to grant Israeli citizenship to the spouse of any Jew, regardless of the sexual orientation of the couple.
Reaction from the haredi world was swift and scathing, with ultra-Orthodox MKs speaking out against the decision and haredi groups in the US voicing intense criticism.
Under the Law of Return, every Jew is entitled to immigrate to Israel and to gain Israeli citizenship. Clause 4a of the law stipulates that the Right of Return is also applicable to the partner of Jews exercising this right.
In recent years there have been several cases in which a homosexual couple comprised of a Jew and a non-Jew, married legally in their country of origin – usually the US – and then sought to make aliya and immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.
According to attorney Nicole Maor, who works for the Israel Religious Action Center that is the legal arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, there have been several requests by such couples in the past five months that are still pending.
In 2011, Maor dealt with one of the first cases of this kind, and assisted one such couple who were told that the non-Jewish spouse should request an A5 temporary resident visa instead of citizenship.
Maor and IRAC issued a legal pre-petition to the State-Attorney’s Office, pointing out that the Law of Return specifies only the partner of a Jew, and not the couple’s sexual orientation.
Following consultations between the State Attorney’s Office and the Interior Ministry it was decided to grant the non-Jewish spouse the right to immigrate under the Law of Return in August 2011.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement to the press that Tuesday’s decision was made following several inquiries made by the Jewish Agency regarding requests for aliya rights by non-Jewish spouses of gay Jews.
The ministry said the decisions was effective immediately and that one such immigration visa had already been granted.
“I do not see a distinction between Jews in heterosexual marriage and those who wed in same-sex marriages abroad in accordance with the law,” Sa’ar wrote in his letter to the Population and Immigration Authority.
“Both fulfill the purpose of the Law of Return according to the principle that ‘The children will return to their land,’” he said, quoting a biblical reference to the return of Jews from the exile.
Maor said “the minister’s decision is very welcome and will solve the problems for numerous couples, and hopefully he will be open to considering the plight of single-sex couples who are unable to get married as well.”
The Jewish Agency said that it “welcomes each and every new immigrant and will continue to assist any individual who wishes to make aliya and is eligible to do so under the Law of Return and in accordance with the determinations of the Interior Ministry.”
Reaction from the haredi world was extremely critical, however.
“This wretched decision will have a boomerang effect against the intentions of Sa’ar who wants to ‘bring back the children to their land,’ and many good Jews will be disgusted by the state and will be distanced from the Land of Israel,” United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush said.
Agudath Yisrael of America, an umbrella haredi organization in the US, similarly lambasted the development.
“The Law of Return has long abandoned the criteria of the Jewish religious tradition in defining a Jew, and so it isn’t surprising that Mr. Sa’ar should equally abandon the Jewish definition of a marriage,” said Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the group.
“This just speaks to the lamentable disconnect between Israel the country and the original Israel, the people, who received God’s law at Sinai. In times like these, with the State of Israel and its citizens facing great challenges from multiple directions, the disconnect is more lamentable than ever.”
Sam Sokol contributed to this story.