Flaw of Return: Why Israel should stop offering automatic citizenship

MIDDLE ISRAEL: The Law of Return has lost its historic rationale and should now be replaced with a naturalization process much like the rest of the world’s nations.

A VARIETY of kippot are displayed for sale at a stall in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A VARIETY of kippot are displayed for sale at a stall in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market.
 “It’s hard to be a Jew,” concludes the Russian hero of Sholem Aleichem’s play by that name, after trading identities with a Jew, and failing to conquer a Jewish woman with whom the two fall in love.
Well, this may not be much of a consolation for that theatrical character, Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov, but deciding who is a Jew may be even harder than being a Jew, as the brouhaha following the High Court’s ruling Monday made plain.
The ruling, which orders the government to accept Conservative and Reform conversions, is part of a saga that began 70 years ago last summer, when the Knesset passed the Law of Return.
Absurdly, while the debate surrounding that legislation remains passionate, and the wounds it was designed to heal continue to fester, the Law of Return has lost its historic rationale and should now be replaced with a naturalization process much like the rest of the world’s.
THE LAW originally said, “Every Jew has the right to immigrate to Israel,” without specifying what it meant by “Jew.”
It took 20 years for the Knesset to amend the law, which now said a Jew “is either a Jewish mother’s child or a convert, and one who is not a member of another faith,” and that all rights granted to a Jewish immigrant would apply to a Jew’s grandchild.
The amendment followed two court appeals, one in which a Polish Holocaust survivor who became a Catholic monk requested Israeli citizenship, and another in which an IDF officer who married an Englishwoman requested that their children be registered as Jews.
The law’s alteration was a political work of art. While accepting Judaism’s definition of Jewishness, it also enabled the naturalization of intermarried couples and their offspring.
No one imagined back in 1970 that a mere 20 years on, the Soviet Union would unravel, that its Jews would flock to Israel, and that with them a multitude of non-Jews would land in the Jewish state, where they would be unable to marry because Israel has no civil marriages.
That is how the question the original law ignored – Who is a Jew? – was replaced by the question the amended law ignored: Who is a converted Jew?
In typical Israeli fashion, a combination of governmental inaction and grassroots initiatives ensued.
On the one hand, the Chief Rabbinate’s ultra-Orthodox magistrates demanded from would-be converts the religious observance that most Israelis shun. On the other hand, Modern-Orthodoxy established more lenient courts that configured the immigrants’ history as antisemitism’s victims.
Ultra-Orthodoxy responded harshly. 
“She is a shikse!” said United Torah Judaism lawmaker Yitzhak Pindrus this week, using the Yiddish term for a gentile woman, and referring to graduates of the IDF’s conversion program. “If someone marries such a woman,” he went on, “his father must sit shiva, rip his clothes, and say kaddish,” as Jewish law requires when one’s child converts to another faith.
Fortunately, this appalling attitude was this week dealt the judicial blow it had long begged. Having said this, the excitement it sparked is misplaced, because the debate about the Law of Return should no longer be about its mechanics, but about its rationale, which no longer exists.
THE MONK who wanted to be classified as a Jew was, ironically, perfectly Jewish from Jewish law’s viewpoint. Born Shmuel Rufeisen in a Polish shtetl, the man who later became Brother Daniel braved the Gestapo, saving Jews before fighting the Nazis as a partisan and finding refuge in the convent where he changed his faith.
Brother Daniel’s biography was unusual even for its era, but it encapsulated last century’s tragedies of Jewish displacement, and it underscored the context in which the Law of Return was passed.
With the Jewish people reeling from the assault that punctuated centuries of persecution, and with Europe and the Middle East still swarming with landless Jews, it went without saying in 1950 that the Jewish state must automatically naturalize any Jew.
The same rationale remained valid even after the Holocaust’s survivors had been absorbed, because there were now other oppressed Jews, in Eastern Europe, Ethiopia and Syria. That is why, beyond the debate about its mechanics, no Zionist questioned the Law of Return’s rationale.
Now, however, with Soviet, Ethiopian and Syrian Jews all freed, there no longer is anywhere in the world even one government that oppresses its Jews.
At the same time, Israel is now a demographically mid-sized country whose population is larger than 98 of the United Nations’ 193 member states. We can therefore take a step back and think before instantaneously granting citizenship to newly arrived people, even if they are full Jews.
EVERY MATURE country has its own naturalization process, but all formulas invariably include an element of time.
Australia, for instance, requires four years’ legal residency before one applies for citizenship; France demands five years as well as French proficiency, knowledge of French history and adoption of France’s values; and Germany stipulates eight years of residency, knowledge of German, and a declaration of allegiance to Germany’s constitution.
Israel now needs some such formula.
Yes, Jewishness will remain the decisive factor in the new naturalization process, and the law will still promise immediate citizenship to landless Jews should any ever reappear, but the rest will become citizens only after living here for, say, five years, demonstrating Hebrew proficiency, passing an exam about Israeli history, and pledging allegiance to the Jewish state and its laws.
Rabbis, like any developed country’s clergy, will be removed from this process, but this amendment will not be about them. It will be about normalcy, and will effectively say that just like it once was hard to be a Jew, it will now be hard to become an Israeli.
Amotz Asa-El’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.