The Law of Return is of great symbolic and practical importance for the realization of Israel’s identity as a “Jewish state.” According to this law, the right of return is reserved for those born into the Jewish people and for converts to Judaism, as well for as their second – and third-generation descendants (the “Grandchild Clause”) and their spouses. The revolutionary proposition, unique in human history, of an exiled people returning to its homeland after millennia scattered abroad, applies to all of these people, including a great many who, though not recognized as “Jews” according to Israeli law or Orthodox Halacha, are nevertheless our brethren – Zera Yisrael, from the seed of Israel.
Before the recent elections, Finance Minister, Avigdor Liberman proposed that the right of return be extended to the fourth generation as well – the great-grandchildren of Jews. Now, in the wake of the elections, some are advocating a move in the opposite direction – cancellation of the Grandchild Clause. Positioning itself between these opposing views, as reported in the media, the Likud favors leaving the law unchanged. What is the best approach?
The fact is that the number of returnees (and their descendants) who have been granted citizenship, despite not being recognized as Jews, has reached around 450,000. Approximately one out of every 20 Israelis. The numbers are on the rise, not only as a result of a natural increase but also because, in recent years, about three-quarters of Law-of-Return olim (immigrants) have belonged to this group. This is a real departure from the way the law was formerly implemented: in the past, only a fifth of olim were not recognized as Jews – and it doesn’t look like this trend is going to change anytime soon.
The grandchild clause of Israel's Law of Return
Opponents of the Grandchild Clause claim that some of these olim have no real connection to Judaism or to Israel and are coming here for reasons of convenience, because Israel’s standard of living is higher than that of the Former Soviet Union countries. They argue that, should this process continue and intensify (due among other things to the decline of Russia), Israel’s “Jewishness” will be diluted, and that another national group that is neither Jewish nor Arab, and not negligible in size, will emerge.
The international legitimacy of the Law of Return may also be damaged in the long term as some will claim that the law’s purpose is not to bring Jews back to their ancestral homeland, but rather the “importation” of manpower with little connection to Judaism, whose main asset is that they are not Arabs and would thus serve the purpose of reducing the Arab share of Israel’s population.
And what’s more: although Israeli governments have declared the conversion of zera Yisrael immigrants to be a “national mission,” the actual number of completed conversions among this group is low. Thus, the number of non-Jewish immigrants who have arrived in Israel in just the past year exceeds the total number of those who have converted to Judaism in Israel over the past 30 years.
The Grandchild Clause, in the absence of a complementary process facilitating large-scale conversion of such olim, will lead to greater numbers of marriages between Jews and non-Jews in Israel.
Consequently, increased pressure can be expected from the ultra-Orthodox, religious, and even the traditionalist sectors to keep dispositive genealogical records – pedigrees for Jews. Significant, far-reaching divisions will be created within Israeli society and impassable distances between different groups of Israelis will preclude any possibility of their intermarrying.
In the face of these arguments, those who oppose the repeal of the Grandchild Clause, stress that those eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return are the descendants of Jews who were distanced from the Jewish people due to life circumstances, and that the time has come to allow them to return to their people. Their coming to Israel is a blessing for the state, which is strengthened and empowered by their presence. The fear of a massive flood of “insincere” Aliyah applicants is unfounded.
Excising the Grandchild Clause would signal to hundreds of thousands of Israelis, who are not recognized as Jews, but who have been absorbed here over the three decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain and have undergone “sociological conversion,” that the Knesset regards them as second-class citizens. Is it at all conceivable that Israeli citizens, flesh of our flesh, full partners in shouldering the national burden and in ensuring the flourishing of the state, will be implicitly classified as unwelcome guests in their home?
CANCELLATION OF the clause would have severe consequences, especially among Diaspora Jewry. Many would see it as a flagrant violation of the covenant of solidarity between the nation-state of the Jewish people and the millions who identify as members of that people in the Diaspora.
As we know, the rate of interfaith marriage in Jewish communities outside Israel exceeds 50 percent, meaning that many young people in the Diaspora, who consider themselves Jews, are entitled to Israeli citizenship only by virtue of the Grandchild Clause.
The proposed change would be interpreted by them – and by their relatives, including those the state does recognize as Jews – as a declaration by the Jewish nation-state that these young people are not part of our family. From their perspective, this would be tantamount to receiving a divorce decree from the state, which could lead them to sever ties with Israel and even cultivate in them a deep sense of resentment toward it.
And yet, beyond these disagreements, there is a consideration that clearly tips the scales against any change that expands or narrows the Law of Return: It would be a disaster if the law were to become part of the ongoing “give and take” of Israeli politics.
If every incoming coalition were to change the law and redefine it according to its own criteria for participation in the historical process of kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of exiles, then this noble law, the essence of what justifies Israeli existence, would become little more than just another dish on the menu of Israeli controversy.
A paradox: those seeking to strengthen Israel’s Jewishness by eliminating the Grandchild Clause, are actually subverting its Jewishness as they diminish the Law of Return to fit the narrow dimensions of a specific political “position.” If the clause were canceled today, it can be assumed that a future, differently composed coalition would want to extend it to the fourth generation in accordance with the views of its members. Periodically dismantling and reassembling the Law of Return would strip it of its meaning, which is the core of Zionism. It would be the loss of a foundational asset dear to the heart of all of us.
Those who fear the consequences of a rising share of non-Jews among olim to Israel should revisit their position on halachic policy with respect to Zera Yisrael immigrants who wish to convert. They might also think about practical policy measures (beyond our scope here) for limiting misuse of the Law of Return by those who have no attachment to their Judaism. But the Law of Return must be left intact.
Israeli society and the global Jewish community exist in an era of growing discord. Few are the bridges that connect us all; preeminent among these are Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the Law of Return. They are the two cornerstones of the foundation our existence rests upon, and any attempt to undermine their stability must be painstakingly avoided.
The writer is president of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and professor of law at the Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Law.