In a declaration to the Knesset as the historic Law of Return was passed in 1950, former prime minister David Ben-Gurion said that the right of Jews to return home was a right that built the state.
Aliyah and the Law of Return are the bedrock and foundation of Israel, to change it would be to perhaps irrevocably alter the nature and character of Israel.
While the law has always had critics, it relied on the overwhelming support of the majority of Israelis from across society.
To my great sorrow, we have been hearing voices, which are recently growing stronger, calling for the amendment of the Law of Return in its current format. They are trying to shirk the history, and the traditional and national agreements that have been cemented during Israel’s 75 years of existence and to radically change it.
Over recent days in the United States, I met with some of my friends from the days of my diplomatic service in New York and from my tenure as CEO of the World Jewish Congress.
In all my conversations, the possible amendment of the Law of Return was brought up and I sensed genuine concern and distress.
In 1987, I was called upon to lead a mission to encourage the immigration to Israel of Jews on behalf of Nativ – a mission later referred to by the code name The Six Day Fair. A short time later, I found myself as an Israeli diplomat and member of the first Israeli delegation operating in the Dutch Embassy in Moscow, which represented Israel’s interests at the time, prior to the establishment of its own diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.
In those twilight days that would lead to the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, thousands of Jews requesting to make aliyah to Israel lined up each morning at the gates of the Dutch Embassy in the Soviet capital. The line was long, winding through the adjacent streets, with people waiting three days to enter the embassy compound.
The sight was a dream come true.
For decades, Israel, through the organization Nativ, operating under the auspices of our intelligence community, attempted to arouse Jewish awareness and Zionist revival, only to collide with the impenetrable wall of the KGB, which used every means at its disposal to prevent them from living a Jewish life.
We were three Israeli diplomats who had been assigned a historic, nearly impossible mission: to lead the Jews of the Soviet Union to their indigenous and ancestral homeland, the land of their forefathers, which they had covertly dreamed about, by force of the Law of Return.
MY FRIENDS at Nativ and I succeeded in our mission and within approximately a decade, starting from the second half of the 1980s, we helped hundreds of thousands of Jews make aliyah. This was a wave of immigration that Israel had dreamed about since its founding and which built our hi-tech sector, helped grow our economy exponentially, contributed to the cultural scene and reconfirmed the vision of the Israeli melting pot.
These new calls to drastically amend the Law of Return constitutes a genuine danger to the future of Israel as a Jewish-democratic state. Approximately 1.5 million of Israel’s residents are immigrants who had arrived in the country in the last 30 years and have assimilated into it.
Around a third of them, almost half a million, are not defined as Jews according to Halacha, Jewish law, despite being active in Israeli society and an inseparable part of it. They serve in the Israel Defense Forces, in the intelligence community, are active in all areas of life, such as in the education and healthcare sectors, and continue to contribute to the start-up nation.
This realization becomes even clearer in the face of the growing epidemic of antisemitism around the world. Making matters worse, Russia and Ukraine have been in the throes of a tragic, bloody war for nearly a year – one that threatens the future of hundreds of thousands of Jews in both countries.
Israel must not turn its back on Jews
Many of them see Israel as the safe haven of the Jewish people, as it has always defined itself. The calls to reexamine the principles of the Law of Return place them in mortal danger. Israel must not turn its back on them.
It is the role of Israel to ensure that following aliyah, new citizens are cared for by being given services to all who wish to use them in order to better educate them and help strengthen their Jewish identity.
However, amending the law will also adversely affect the hundreds of thousands who qualify under the Law of Return in the US, Europe and in many other communities and will severely damage the fabric of Israel’s relations with the Jews in the Diaspora.
The last thing our brothers and sisters need is to feel that their country has abandoned them.
When my friends and I played our part in bringing them to a safe haven in Israel more than 30 years ago, we knew that an entire nation stood behind us and behind them.
I would like to believe that in 2022, as well, and in the future, Israel will be led by a responsible leadership that will immediately put an end to the unnecessary and harmful attempt to amend the Law of Return.
The writer is the chairman of the Center for Jewish Impact and a former CEO of the World Jewish Congress.