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Messing with the Law of Return again

MK Smotrich's bill seeks to limit the horizons of Judaism and close the gates of conversion to the largest Jewish denominations of the Diaspora
Betzalel Smotrich, photo credit: Knesset.gov.il

Yesterday the Knesset debated an amendment to the Law of Return, proposed by MK Bezalel Smotrich, which, if passed, would have limited the scope of the Law of Return by blocking entry and eligibility for the right of return to the grandchildren of Jews, as the law has mandated for decades. When Smotrich realized that the Coalition had resolved to oppose his proposal at this juncture, holding that they would hold a “round table” to review the proposal further, he withdrew it to give them time for review, reserving the right to bring it up for a vote again if the Coalition does not do so itself.

Every few years there arises a proposed bill to erode Israel’s Law of Return. If there was any doubt that this most recent proposal is worthy of nothing more than the Knesset’s trash bin, the fact that MK Smotrich raised it now should strongly point in this direction. Notwithstanding his claim to the contrary, Smotrich’s proposed amendment to the Law of Return was not intended for the benefit of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Rather, it was intended to advance his fundamentalist religious views and troll the Coalition parties (which he adamantly denied, naturally, although given his recent record in trolling – it’s not clear that anybody believed him).

This is a Member of Knesset (Minister of Transportation in the previous government) who preaches for the transformation of Israel into a Torah State, battles against public transportation on the Sabbath, favors conversion therapy to “cure” homosexuality, seeks to expel the Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox prayer groups from the Western Wall, etc., etc. He presents his proposal as aimed at safeguarding Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, but the Jewish state he is actually seeking to establish is a theocracy, or as close to that as possible for the time being. To this day, he has tried every conceivable way to advance his vision, providing staunch opposition to the realization of the Israeli Declaration of Independence’s promise of freedom of religion and equality… striving to replace it with total control by the Chief Rabbinate and extremist Orthodoxy.

As long as Israel remembers the Holocaust and serves as a refuge for its victims and their descendants, we cannot – morally and nationally – close Israel’s gates to the same people that Hitler and the Nazis persecuted as Jews, regardless of whether Orthodox Jewish law would recognize them as such. The Nazis “settled” for those who were “merely” descendants of Jews, and the least Israel can and should do is keep its gates open to them if they wish to join the Jewish fold.

In his speech at the Knesset, Smotrich demagogically argued: “The Nazis have also murdered gypsies and invalids, should that make them eligible to come to Israel under the Law of Return too?” He is right. The Nazis did murder gypsies and invalids, but: No!

Nobody is suggesting that this should make invalids and gypsies eligible for Aliyah. The Nazis murdered the descendants of Jews, regardless of their halachic status, because they descended from Jews – not for any other reason. That is exactly why Israel, the homeland of the Jewish People, should treat them differently than gypsies and invalids.

Still, given his demagoguery, it’s important to note that Smotrich is also at the forefront of the effort to refuse Sudanese asylum seekers the opportunity to settle in Israel and in demanding that foreign workers be expelled from Israel, along with their children who were born in and grew up in Israel as Israelis. He and like-minded politicians explain their position by arguing that allowing the asylum seekers and foreign workers to remain in Israel threatens Israel’s Jewish identity.

It is Holocaust scholars like Prof. Yehuda Bauer and survivors who wrote a petition to counter this position, demanding that Israel act with compassion and commitment to our national memory and our lessons as a persecuted people that sought refuge and encountered closed gates and rejection throughout the world. Clearly, not only is Smotrich’s ideology repulsive, but his logic and integrity are also lacking.

A symbolic yet profound rebuke to Smotrich was voiced by MK Evgeny Sova (Yisrael Beytenu), a new immigrant himself, who recalled the thousands of Jews that were murdered in Kamenets Podilskyi, a Ukrainian city on the Smotrych River. He said that some of the survivors of this 1941 massacre hid their Jewishness to stay alive, a phenomenon widely known in that era, and now their grandchildren who want to return to their people should not be prevented from doing so by the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.

Smotrich, in part, showed his true colors when he said: “For many years there has been an elephant in the room…we now have 440,000 non-Jewish immigrants in Israel, and only 30,000 of them have converted to Judaism…meaning that in a generation, this population will grow to some 1.5 million, in two generations – 3 million, and following that – [there will be] huge assimilatory processes as you see in the USA and in Europe. Anyone with responsibility for the future of the Jewish People and its physical survival in the most basic sense of the word must close this loophole.”

Clearly, while he explains his amendment as being meant to close the door to the grandchildren of Jews, his ire directed against all immigrants who are not considered halachically Jewish according to Orthodox law, whether spouses or children of Jews – not only their grandchildren. He sees all of them as a threat to realizing his vision of the Jewish People and the Jewish State.

That revealed, it should be clear to Jewish leadership throughout the world that the threat is not the diversified Aliyah, which represents the makeup of the Jewish People in today’s world, but rather the Smotriches who refuse to accept this reality and aim to drive these family members of Jews away. If he could, Smotrich would block the increasingly wide gates of conversion for those who wish to enter. He would maintain the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate indefinitely and reject the recognition of conversions offered by all the active Jewish denominations.

He has labeled the main opponents to the amendment, Lapid and Liberman, as “Haters of Judaism” for he is blind (or manipulative and distorting the truth) to the fact that neither hates Judaism. It’s not Judaism that they oppose but rather his brand of narrow minded, coercive and racist Judaism. MK Smotrich seeks to limit the horizons of Judaism and close the gates of conversion to the largest Jewish denominations of the Diaspora. He fights tooth and nail against freedom of religion – and he must never be allowed to define for Israel and for world Jewry what “Judaism” is and what the “Jewish people” are.

My organization, Hiddush, which promotes freedom of religion for Israel, hopes that, as promised by the Coalition leaders, the Knesset will vehemently reject this proposal if and when it is further discussed. We must safeguard the potential immigration of grandchildren of Jews who wish to link their fates to that of the Jewish people and its national home: the Jewish, democratic State of Israel.

About the Author
Rabbi Uri Regev is one of Israel’s most prominent advocates for religious freedom. He currently serves as president of Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel.
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