"Under the 1970 Knesset amendment to the Law of Return refuge is available to the: “child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew…”
Introduction: The debate over Israel as Zionist is most visibly represented by haredi anti-Zionism. But there is also a secular effort to modify or even eliminate Israel’s Law of Return, Israel’s guarantee of refuge to the Diaspora.
Voting in Israel is based on party and the party that wins the most votes is usually chosen to form the government. Since no single party has ever approached the 61 seat majority to form a stable government, the leading party requires coalition partners, and this provides smaller parties disproportionate influence in promoting their limited interests. This is the case with Israel’s religious political parties which are typically the swing vote in coalition construction. . For purposes of this discussion the religious parties demands lie in the area of religious identity which can conflict with the interests of the secular majority, and threaten the identity of Diaspora Jewry, an issue being played out today in a haredi attack on Rabbi Dov Lipman, a haredi who sees himself as a bridge between the haredim and secular Israel:
“Lipman supports a number of laws now being formulated that would roll back privileges long enjoyed by haredim in Israel, notably exemption from the military draft and the public funding of their schools.”
The problem of “Who is a Jew” legislation was discussed recently. We now turn to the challenges to Israel’s Law of Return.
Flag of Israel, (Wikipedia)
“Who is a Jew” legislation, a persistent effort to provide a legal definition of Jewish identity for the State of Israel has never passed in the Knesset. As “compensation” secular parties have attempted to provide Orthodox “consideration” in the drafting of a constitution, or by a watered-down version of the Law of Return.
The “Grandparent” Amendment: In 1970 the religious parties demanded the government accept that all “convert” immigrants undergo a second, Orthodox conversion to be recognized as “Jewish” on their Teudat Zehut (identity card) The Amendment also reaffirmed Israel’s commitment as refuge to the Diaspora, and reaffirmation of the state’s commitment to its Zionist roots. The Amendment clarified that the Law applied to future victims under Germany’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws. Israel’s Law of Return (1950) granted automatic citizenship to all immigrants. The 1970 Amendment specified that refuge applies also to a,
“child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.. . . ‘Jew’ means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.”
Efforts to amend or annul parts of the Law, and particularly the offending Grandparent Clause, continue from both religious and secular quarters. If, for example, the religious requirement that all converted Jews immigrating to Israel undergo an “Orthodox” conversion in order to be recognized as “Jewish” were adopted it would challenge the identity of and alienate Diaspora Jewry and olim already living in Israel.
The secular effort generally agrees with, or seeks compromise with this dangerous religious requirement, but couched in “secular” terms:
“The most widely accepted proposal for amending the Law of Return is the annulment of the "grandchild clause," such that the non-Jewish grandchild of a Jewish grandfather would not be able to immigrate to Israel, or at least would not be able to do so without his parents or the Jewish grandfather.”
One “secular” critic is Ruth Gavison, a professor of law at Hebrew University and a former candidate for the Israel Supreme Court. In an 86 page paper, The Law of Return at Sixty Years: History, Ideology, Justification, she recommends revisiting the Grandparent Clause as “too broad.” She also suggests amending the Law of Return to not grant automatic citizenship to olim (immigrants).
A stamp in a passport issuing holder Israeli citizenship based on Law of Return (Wikipedia)
But secular criticism of the Law of Return is not limited to private citizens. In fact the controversy likely originated, is certainly fueled by successive government initiatives:
"In the last Knesset [this is a rewrite of an article that appeared in 2005], Justice and Immigration Minister Tzipi Livni submitted a bill that would annul [my emphasis] the grandchild clause … Livni was not alone… The present deputy education minister, Michael Melchior, served as chairman of the ministerial committee on conversions to Judaism in the government of Ehud Barak. At that time, Melchior submitted to the prime minister a proposal of his own to reduce the scope of the Law of Return.”
Although the traditional support base for the religious parties is Likud and the Israeli Right, Tzipi Livni is generally considered a “dove,” and Michael Melchior has even stronger credentials as an advocate for social justice and commitment to strengthening bonds between Israel and the Diaspora! As regards government initiatives to eliminate the Grandparent Clause:
“Ten years ago , an internal committee in the Justice Ministry drew up a proposal to reduce the possibility of non-Jewish grandchildren and family members being naturalized under the Law of Return.”
The Government and the constitution: If private citizens and individuals within the government are guilty of "bad faith," of behavior detrimental to Israel’s Zionist identity; if individuals would omit from law Israel’s responsibilities as refuge to the Diaspora, what to make of the Government of Israel acting in this manner?
Israel’s Declaration of Independence includes instructions designating 1 October, 1948 as the date the Knesset should have presented a constitution for a vote. For various reasons, principally the question of “religion and the state,” the proposed constitution “failed to get out of committee.” The most ambitious effort to create a constitution was made in 2010 when, Prime Minister Olmert, instructed Menachem Ben-Sasson, chairman of the Knesset''s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, to prepare a constitution in time for Israel’s 60th Independence Day celebrations.
“The panel began its work with a document that was drafted by the committee during the previous (16th) Knesset… the previous committee drafted more than 1,000 pages that included three versions of the constitution proposed by the Israel Democracy Institute, the Institute for Zionist Strategy and the Israel Religious Action Center.”
In the end Ben-Sasson’s Committee also failed for reasons already described, "religion and the state." But tellingly, as regards the Law of Return,
“the prevailing trend in the committee is for the constitutional section on this to be very general, in order to leave out the question of "who is a Jew." The objective is to simultaneously present the Knesset with a new Law of Return that omits the grandfather clause … but includes a clause enabling anyone who is a member of a Jewish community to immigrate, even if he is not halakhically Jewish [my emphasis].”
Certainly a “politic” response to the anticipated firestorm that conditioning the Law of Return on Halacha would ignite in both the Russian émigré community in Israel, and the Diaspora; and particularly the "interfering” (as described by haredi politicians) Americans!
But as a document representing Israel’s approach to its post-Holocaust obligations outlined in the 1970 Amendment, Ben-Sasson again represents a retreat from “Israel as Zionist.”
Recent writings in this Series: