The nature of public debate today is, one might say, not exactly conducive to reasoned and thoughtful dialogue, and this lamentable state of affairs was well illustrated on Tuesday by Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef’s comments regarding non-Jewish immigrants coming to Israel from the former Soviet Union.Intemperate as he was, Yosef did not label all immigrants from the former Soviet Union “non-Jews” and “haters of religion,” although this does not justify his pejorative stereotyping of the large minority of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law. But also lost among the storm of condemnations and recriminations was Yosef’s call to amend the Law of Return in one of his responses to the firestorm of criticism that rained down on him after his comments were made public. Among all his statements on the issue, this was perhaps the most significant, since it goes to the very heart of what the Jewish state is about.The Law of Return is one of the foundation stones of the Zionist vision and the State of Israel. It was designed to affirm the right of Jews from anywhere in the world to obtain citizenship of the new sovereign Jewish state and to live there. When it was first passed in 1950, however, the law did not determine exactly who is a Jew due to the sensitive nature of the question.In 1970, it was amended and defined. The law then defined those eligible for Israeli citizenship as anyone who was either Jewish according to Jewish law – meaning they were born to a Jewish mother – or someone who had a Jewish parent or grandparent.This broad and inclusive eligibility for Israeli citizenship did not pose much of a problem until the mass immigration of the 1990s, following the collapse of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union.After 70 years of religious repression in the Communist state, the connection of many hundreds of thousands of Jews to their religion was deeply eroded. By the 1990s, many had intermarried with non-Jews.Of the approximately one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union between 1989 and 2009, about 700,000 were Jewish according to Jewish law, i.e., they were born to a Jewish mother, and some 300,000 were not, which is about 30%.Since then, the proportion of immigrants from the region who do not meet the requirements of Jewish law to be considered Jewish has risen massively and now stands at over 60%.There are approximately 450,000 Israeli citizens who either emigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel, or who were born to these immigrants, who are not Jewish. The number is growing every year due to new immigration and natural growth.According to one estimate, this figure will reach half a million people by 2030.This being the case, Rabbi Yosef, his colleague Chief Rabbi David Lau and others have come to question the validity of the Law of Return.As painful as it may be, is now the time to have a debate on this most sensitive of issues?The case made for changing the law to include only those who are born to a Jewish mother, or who have converted to Judaism, is for the ultra-Orthodox and conservative religious-Zionist proponents of such a policy very simple. “This is a Jewish state, not a non-Jewish state,” says Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, dean of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva and an influential figure in the conservative wing of the religious-Zionist community.“The non-Jews have many countries, and Jews only have this one,” he says, adding that there is no reason to grant the special right to citizenship in the Jewish state to people who are not Jewish according to Jewish law. And Aviner also rejects claims that instead of changing the Law of Return, the problem should be tackled by making conversion to Judaism easier. He insists there are no shortcuts for conversion, even for those who are descendants of Jews, and only converts who fully accept the yoke of the Jewish commandments are valid converts.But more-moderate voices in the religious-Zionist movement believe otherwise. Many rabbis and proponents of the immigration from the former Soviet Union have argued there is a moral responsibility of the Jewish state to also accept and bring back those who through the vicissitudes of history and the repression of Judaism became detached religiously, but not nationally, from the Jewish people.Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg, a prominent modern-Orthodox thinker and former president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, emphasizes the roots of the Law of Return and its ongoing relevance.“Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes that you are member of the covenant of fate of the Jewish people if you share the history, the suffering of the Jewish people and responsibility for it,” he says. “The Law of Return said that since we went through a period when Jews were oppressed and persecuted and killed for being Jewish, and that those connected to the Jewish people through legal or genetic ties were also persecuted, the State of Israel will guarantee all such people a safe haven of protection in the Jewish state.”Rabbi Seth Farber, an ardent campaigner for the rights of immigrants from the Soviet Union and for a more lenient conversion path for non-Jewish immigrants, says he would welcome a reasoned debate on the Law of Return, but insists it is the wrong solution to the problem. Like Greenberg, he argues that the Law of Return was designed to provide a refuge for Jews, those who identify as Jewish and anyone who is identified by the oppressors of Jews as Jewish. he says amending the law would eradicate this function of the Jewish state in the future.Farber says the solution lies both in reversing the Chief Rabbinate’s policies of extreme suspicion of the 800,000 Israeli Jews from the former Soviet Union and in making conversion easier for those descendants of Jews who are not Jewish according to Jewish law, for which he asserts there are legitimate leniencies in Jewish law.His solution to halt the problem of Jewish intermarriage in the Jewish state in the coming generations is to convert the children of non-Jewish immigrants who are still minors in Jewish law, thought to number some 60,000.Converting a minor, girls under 12 and boys under 13, is a far simpler process then for adults since it does not require the acceptance of Jewish laws and commandments.The Chief Rabbinate opposes this policy, arguing that most such children will not have religious parents, and they will therefore grow up irreligious. But Farber and those such as prominent religious-Zionist arbiters of Jewish law Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz say there are leniencies for this as well.Given that the percentage of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law will increase in the coming years, it appears there is a need for a reasoned, open and respectful debate on the nature of the Law of Return in Israel in the second decade of the 21st century.The concerns of both sides of the debate are real and valid, and only through addressing them can a coherent path forward be found.