A Skeptical Look at the Plan to Update Israel’s Law of Return

It seems as if every few months some numbskull comes up with a new way to downgrade Israel’s Law of Return which guarantees citizenship for those born of Jewish lineage, including parents and even one grandparent.

Just a few months ago, the idea had been floated by a more extremist Knesset Member, Bezalel Smotrich, to extricate the “grandchild of Jews” provision from the Law of Return, as he feared that the sheer number of those to whom such a right would apply, could significantly end up changing the Jewish character of Israel.

So not surprising to read about yet another prospective rewrite, thought up by a think tank called, The Judaism and State Policy Center at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  Why do I refer to it as a rewrite? Because their proposed law would “examine” eligibility of those claiming a Jewish connection in order to be approved under what is defined as “the extension to a sequence of possible identities.”  Does anyone even know what that means?

The 1970 amendment which provided for individuals, with at least one Jewish grandparent, whether or not they are considered Jewish under Jewish law, already extends citizenship rights to those who may have been raised in another faith and by non-Jewish parents.  In other words, you are not obligated to be an observer of the Jewish faith in order to be eligible for Israeli citizenship. Your parental or grandparental lineage is sufficient to allow entrance into a homeland which obviously means something to the one making the request!

But this particular think tank seems to believe that a crisper definition is warranted, and so they offer a plan which would involve three groups or, as they call it, “circles.”

“The first circle has a biological component to it.  If you are a Jew, according to the accepted definition, you will receive citizenship.” (Think tank:  Create ‘Diaspora Jews visa,’ JPost, 7/18/22) Obviously, that would qualify as “first-class citizenship,” a distinction only given to Jews with Jewish parents who likely are somewhat observant.

Yet, that already exists, although in a somewhat weaker form throughout the past few years.  Making Aliyah (immigration to Israel) has increasingly become much more burdensome, often accompanied by a long and tedious process which is designed to wear out the applicant – or so it would seem.  Stories of naturally born Jews whose ethnicity, religious persuasion and, sometimes color, was challenged has attempted to bring an entirely new meaning to the Law of Return.

As overly zealous Interior Ministry clerks have devoted meticulous, painstaking, microscopic examination of each applicant’s background, even despite their having provided clear and authentic documentation of their family history, delays and suspicions have often been the end result.  Consequently, the message has either been – you don’t pass the Jewish smell test or don’t call us, we’ll call you.  Either way, it’s far from the warm welcome that every Jew deserves when wanting to throw in their lot with their kinsmen in their ancestral home.

“The second circle relates to the child, grandchild or great-grandchild of a Jew and their spouses.  The proposed law will state that all of these mentioned people are welcome to make Aliyah but will not automatically receive citizenship.  They can, of course, become citizens, but through a gradual procedure or residence visa.”

Once again, according to the present 1950 Law of Return, with its 1970 amendment, there is already a provision for this (with the exception of great-grandchildren of Jews) allowing for them to obtain immediate citizenship with no waiting period.  So, in that respect, this is a downgrading of what is already on the books.

The think tank proposal goes on to suggest that such individuals can become citizens, “but through a gradual procedure or residence visa.”

Two thoughts come to mind – “Let the buyer beware,” and “Read the fine print.”  There is no clarification of what such a “gradual procedure” would entail or how long it would last.  Nor does it define the efficacy of a residence visa.  Would it be perpetually extended or would it expire after a certain number of months or years?  None of this is detailed.

In fact, the think tank team, along with their director, Tani Frank believe that “these descendants of Jews should be offered a ‘graded procedure that is similar to the Law of Entry into Israel for those who aren’t Jewish.” This would include the non-Jewish spouses of Israelis who, up until now, have received citizenship thanks to their Israeli mate, albeit many times after a long, protracted fight.  What the ‘graded procedure’ involves is anyone’s guess.  Once again, light on details.

Within this “second circle” scenario, applicants would need to somehow qualify as having met some affinity or affiliation in order to hasten their acceptance.  Probably the most absurd contingency within the ‘second circle’ classification involves individuals who are being persecuted or suffering distress as a direct result of anti-Semitism.  Assuming that someone is the victim of attacks due to their Jewish race, this, in and of itself, should serve as enough evidence that if the person is Jewish enough to be injured or killed, then Israel should definitely welcome them with open arms.  However, oddly enough, even in such an obvious event, our think tank only suggests that such an extreme situation might help to speed up receipt of their official status.

Finally, the “third circle” would extend to Jewish individuals who are not desirous of receiving citizenship but who, nonetheless, may choose to stay for longer periods.  Those people would be granted an “extended residence visa,” affording them the ability to “obtain temporary status in Israel, even without the issuance of citizenship.” This actually sounds reasonable especially in light of the many delays that have been experienced by those unquestionably eligible for citizenship. Such a status might help them to gain immediate permanent citizenship if extenuating circumstances ultimately force them to make such a move.

Director Frank apparently believes that the Law of Return is due for an update, and while his plan might actually sound more inclusive, it seems, at least in the case of the “second circle,” which I suspect a great number of Jews fall into these days, due to intermarriage and other considerations, could easily create a second-class citizenship – one which would take excessive time and only be granted on the basis of some clerk’s subjective opinion that it has been earned.

I’m all for a fairer, more equitable and just path for Aliyah, especially as meant to be accessed per the Law of Return. If this new proposed plan can provide a less burdensome and oppressive entrance into the homeland for those who have Jewish ancestry, then I’m on board, but let’s say I’m in favor of first reading the fine print to really see if this is an upgrade or yet another downgrade of the already existing law.

About the Author
A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.
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