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Is it time to revisit the Law of Return?

The great nation-building strategy of the early years of the Jewish state may not be the best plan for 2018
Illustrative. New immigrants arrive to Ben Gurion airport in Israel. (Gideon Markowicz/ FLASH90)
Illustrative. New immigrants arrive to Ben Gurion airport in Israel. (Gideon Markowicz/ FLASH90)

For the first time in Israel’s history, Jewish immigrants were outnumbered by non-Jewish immigrants. On Monday, December 31, 2018, the Central Bureau of Statistics, released the following data: “17,700 of the 32,600 migrants who moved to Israel in 2018 came under the Law of Return but were listed as ‘having no religion.’ “

The principle of the Law of Return, חֹוק הַשְׁבוּת, is expressed in the first words of the Law, “every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [immigrant].” It is a fundamental cornerstone of Zionism and is as relevant today as the day it was passed into law (July 5, 1950).

But the devil is in the details. The criteria for Jewishness, added in 1970, include children and grandchildren of Jews. Israel turned the infamous Nuremburg law on its head: the definition of Jewishness used by the Nazis to send people to death camps became the definition to save lives of Jews, in particular those from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But a great nation-building strategy in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, may not be a great nation-building strategy in 2018.

Today, the Law of Return should apply both to Jews by religion and Jews by culture, nationality or ethnicity – having a Jewish parent or grandparent by itself should not be enough.

The definition “Jewishness” by ancestry is out of step with the realty of Jewish life today. Identity today is a matter of choice, not of birth. This is true not only of Jewish identity, increasingly, identity world-wide is fluid, people create their own identities out of free choice and free will.

Thus, there are large numbers of Jews in Israel, the USA and around the world who are Jewish by culture, nationality, or ethnicity, but neither profess nor practice Judaism as a religion.

Increasing numbers of people in survey after survey conducted by Ukeles Associates, Inc.  answer “yes” to the question, “Do you consider yourself Jewish?” and answer “none” to the question, “What is your religion?”

Israel has historically conflated the religion question with the “considers self Jewish” question. It is time to disentangle these two. The 17,700 immigrants who came to Israel in 2018 who said they had no religion are in two groups — people who consider themselves Jewish by criteria other than religion and those who do not consider themselves Jewish.

The critical question from the point of view of the security and well-being of Israel is not whether people welcomed here under the Law of Return have a Jewish parent or grandparent, but does at least one person in a family see themselves as part the Jewish people?  If yes, they belong here as a matter of right, if not, they do not belong here as a matter of right. Perhaps people coming under the Law of Return should be asked to take an oath of allegiance to the Jewish people.

Ruth’s famous biblical formulation for joining the Jewish people needs to be subdivided today: “thy people shall be my people” should be the measure of being Jewish and being guaranteed a place in Israel. “Thy God is my God“ is the measure of a commitment to being Jewish by religion. Both are valid.

About the Author
Jack Ukeles is the president of Ukeles Associates Inc., a planning, policy research, and management firm for Jewish communities and organizations in the US, Israel, and world-wide.
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