Rightist party seeks to amend Law of Return, create state-funded diaspora schools

This right-wing party wants to amend Israel’s Law of Return and establish state-funded schools for diaspora Jews in Israel. Would this change Israel as we know it?

 Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks next to Head of opposition Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with the opposition parties at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, on June 28, 2021.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks next to Head of opposition Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with the opposition parties at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, on June 28, 2021.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Strangely, the party that most of the mainstream American Jewish community are afraid of, in Israel’s upcoming elections next week, has written probably the most specified platform on issues regarding Israel-Diaspora relations and aliyah.

The Religious Zionist party has decided during this election campaign to emphasize its responsibility towards diaspora Jewry, less than a year after its chairman, MK Bezalel Smotrich was asked by UK’s Jewish umbrella organization to leave the Kingdom and stay away from Jewish institutions - because of his views on relations with Israeli Arabs and the LGBTQ community

Smotrich is running in a bloc with the extreme right candidate MK Itamar Ben Gvir, an individual with ties to the Kach, a radical Orthodox Jewish, ultranationalist political party that existed in Israel till 1994 and according to polls may receive up to 14 seats - which will potentially make them the third largest party in the upcoming Knesset.

The Jerusalem Post has obtained Religious Zionist Party’s platform on Diaspora Jewry and Aliyah.

“Informed by a deep sense of responsibility for our fellow Jews around the world, we seek to address the following challenges,” the platform stated. Some of the plans the party claims to promote are creating “increased apathy toward Jewish identity and detachment from Zionism among many Diaspora Jews, specifically young adults.” In addition, they suggest they will try to assist with the “struggle to sustain communal institutions and Jewish schools in many Jewish communities abroad.”

 Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir carries an Israeli flag as he dances together with others by Damascus gate just outside Jerusalem's Old City June 15, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/RONEN ZEVULUN) Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir carries an Israeli flag as he dances together with others by Damascus gate just outside Jerusalem's Old City June 15, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/RONEN ZEVULUN)

In addition, they intend to combat antisemitism, the BDS movement, and the intermarriage of many Jews in the diaspora.

The platform was written by number 12 in the party’s list, Ohad Tal, who previously served as director general of the World Bnei Akiva movement, together with Smotrich

“I have to admit that in recent years, the issue of the relationship with the diaspora and of aliyah and absorption, weren’t on my radar and I wasn’t aware of them,” Smotrich told the Post in an interview. As chairman of the party, Smotrich was allowed to personally choose a candidate for the 12th spot and he decided to elect Tal - even though he didn’t run in the party’s primaries. “The fact that I chose Ohad as my personal choice for a candidate expresses the importance that I and we as a party relate to this issue.” 

In addition, he said that he thinks Israel should change its aliyah policies: “For too many years, the State of Israel was only focused on immigration from the Former Soviet Union, which is good and important, but everything was directed there and not towards other countries with huge potential.”

“We have not paid enough attention to the adaptation of aliyah benefits and models relevant to North American or French Jews,” he said.

Bezalel's choice to focus on diaspora relation, which is not the most politically profitable topic, is a significant value statement that shows his and our commitment towards this cause,” Tal, who participated in the meeting, added.

Tal went through the different bullets of this 2,000-word platform. “The high cost of Jewish education in Jewish communities around the world makes it hard for many Jewish families to send their children to Jewish schools,” Tal said and added that as a result, “many Jewish children grow up without a solid Jewish and Zionist identity.”

“Those who do not live here in Israel and do not suffer from the terrorism and attacks, will not preach morality to us.”

Bezalel Smotrich

Some of the ideas he hopes to promote as MK are to “help Jewish schools develop a core curriculum steeped in Jewish and Zionist values.” In addition, he stated that the party will advocate for the increasing of Israeli teachers who teach in Jewish day schools abroad as emissaries. 

Another idea offered by Tal and Smotrich is to create subsidized international Jewish high schools in Israel, that will potentially try and offer a solution to the “tuition crisis” in North American Jewish day schools. “We will assess the possibility of opening English-speaking high schools in Israel that will cater to students from abroad who are interested in receiving a high-quality high school education in Israel at a fraction of the price they would pay in their home countries.”

Tal served as an emissary in the Netherlands and was in charge of recruiting shlichim for the World Mizrachi Movement.  He explained that “despite their [the shlichim’s] important contributions, they aren’t officially recognized by the state and often do not receive proper compensation for their work.” As a result, Tal promised to promote legislation that calls for official state recognition of shlichim.

A few bullet points on the platform suggest enlarging the budget’s for gap year programs in Israel under the Masa joint project with the Jewish Agency, in order to offer more funding for these programs and also dedicating funding towards Zionist youth movements in the diaspora.

Regarding aliyah, Tal explained that he intends to work on “mitigating the bureaucracy encountered by new immigrants who seek to transfer their academic degrees and professional licenses.”  Another offer has already been introduced by fellow party member MK Simcha Rothman, who tried to promote legislation that will “work to prevent double taxation, which deters potential immigrants.”

Not all hopeful Olim Chadashim have a plan of action for aliyah

According to Tal, there are “50,000 French Jews who according to a recent study would like to emigrate to Israel as soon as possible, but cannot make the move in the absence of a proactive plan to promote their aliyah.”

“We will amend the Law of Return and its different stipulations to reflect current trends in Israel and ensure Jewish continuity in the land of Israel,” the platform states. According to the official document, the Religious Zionist party wants to “annul” the ‘Grandchild Clause’, which was legislated in 1970, allowing those with at least one Jewish grandparent to make aliyah and become an Israeli citizen. Many of the olim to Israel from Russia and Ukraine aren’t halachically Jewish, but they are still entitled to become Israelis because they have at least one Jewish grandparent.  

 FRENCH JEWS arrive on aliyah at Ben-Gurion Airport, including a person who kisses the ground of Israel. Today, more than four out of every 10 Jews in the world live in Israel. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90) FRENCH JEWS arrive on aliyah at Ben-Gurion Airport, including a person who kisses the ground of Israel. Today, more than four out of every 10 Jews in the world live in Israel. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

“We will advance educational initiatives to increase the exposure of Israeli students to Jewish communities abroad and enable them to get to know one another,” Tal said, quoting from the platform.

Asked if he will demand the Diaspora Affairs portfolio for one of his party members, Smotrich said that he doesn't “negotiate with the media,” but he didn’t rule this possibility out. Both American Jewish organizations and White House officials have told the Israeli media that if Ben Gvir joins the next government, that will have huge implications on the relations of both countries and both Jewish communities.

“I think it's illegitimate,” Smotrich said of these publications. “Israel is a democratic country and certainly all our friends in the world will respect the democratic decision and not interfere with how the government is put together, just like we work with any administration in the US or an international leader in another country,” he said.

“Everyone will work with us,” Smotrich said undoubtedly, regardless of the reports claiming otherwise. “I'm not scared by anonymous briefings,” he stated with cynicism.”

“Those who do not live here in Israel and do not suffer from the terrorism and attacks, will not preach morality to us,” Smotrich stressed and asked to send a message to American Jewish organizations: “I ask to tell the American Jewish organizations that do not sympathize us: You need Israel nowadays, in order to secure the future of Jewish existence. The fact that Israel is strong and independent is an insurance certificate for you, therefore, I urge you not to engage in boycotts.”

Shocking party differences

Smotrich said he was “astounded,” every time he heard of religious Zionists in areas such as Gush Etzion that were considering voting for the National Union party, led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

“Gantz is a leftist,” Smotrich said. “He froze construction in Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria and strives for the establishment of a Palestinian state. He transferred hundreds of millions to the Palestinian Authority which pursues terrorism. [Transportation Minister] Merav Michaeli said that she announced she stopped the construction of roads in Judea and Samaria because she doesn't think that Israel will continue to rule these areas in the future.”

Many religious Zionists considered voting for Gantz’s party because of MK’s such as Matan Kahana who served as Religious Affairs Minister and promoted reforms in the Kashrut and conversion laws. “I don’t understand why anyone thinks that Matan Kahana will be able to promote his reforms, which I am against,” Smotrich said.

“Gantz wants to be prime minister while receiving backing from the ultra-Orthodox parties. If that is the case, Kahana won’t be able to get near that government.  I personally think that Gantz’s party will be a member of the opposition and therefore they won’t have any power to make these changes in issues regarding Religion and State.”