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Benjamin Ish-Shalom
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Our Shabbat guest: The ‘Grandchild Amendment’

Israeli society boosts immigrants' Jewish identity by its very nature - which means we need the Law of Return as it is
IDF soldiers studying via the Nativ Military Program. (courtesy, nativhagiur.org.il)
IDF soldiers studying via the Nativ Military Program. (courtesy, nativhagiur.org.il)

The “Grandchild Amendment” was our guest on Shabbat — a charming young man who serves in a special unit of the IDF and is now undergoing the process of conversion to Judaism at the “NATIV National Center for Identity and Conversion.” The Grandchild Amendment prayed beside me at the synagogue, sang zemirot (Shabbat songs) with us at the Shabbat table, and gave a clever d’var Torah (comments on the weekly Torah portion). On Hanukkah, I attended a moving candle-lighting ceremony at NATIV with 200 IDF soldiers, all upstanding young women and men, half of them Grandchild Amendments, who passionately sang Ma’oz Tzur. And I thought to myself: How much would we have lost were it not for the “grandchild amendment”?

Today, in the face of repeated demands to change or even annul the grandchild amendment, I wish to post a reminder: those who live amongst us by the power of the grandchild amendment are our sisters and brothers. In many cases, their grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust for being Jews. Those who now uphold the full Law of Return, including the grandchild amendment, are the ones who declare that the State of Israel is and should be the state of the Jewish people in its entirety, and not only the state of its current citizens.

At present, the demographic profile of Jews in most countries around the world consists largely of mixed families. This is true not only of Jews from the former USSR. Any future wave of aliyah will inevitably include a large percentage of mixed-marriage families. These are the facts. This is the Jewish people today. And this reality requires Israel to make a crucial decision: will it continue to be the state of the Jewish people? Is it still concerned with the Jewish Diaspora and with every person of Jewish ancestry, “so that a banished person does not remain banished from Him” (Samuel 2 14:14)?

This question is at the heart of the State of Israel’s identity and the justification for its very existence. This is how David Ben-Gurion, our founding prime minister, explained the Law of Return in 1950: “This law determines that it is not the state that gives a Jew from abroad the right to settle in it, but rather this right is an inherent part of being a Jew… This right preceded the State of Israel and, in fact, it built the state.”

In 1970, the grandchild amendment was added to the Law of Return, extending the right of return to the children, grandchildren, and spouses of Jews. The chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee at the time, MK Rabbi Dr. Israel Shlomo Ben-Meir from the National Religious Party (“MAFDAL”), explained: “Giving rights… to those who are not Jews but have a bond with the Jewish people… in the hope that in this way the mitzvah of ‘Your children will return to their own land’ (Jeremiah 31:17) will be observed, and those who have been cut off… will convert to Judaism and become a part of us, increasing our strength in the land.”

This legislation was thus founded upon the Zionist and even messianic perception that beyond the obvious interest of the secular state encouraging as many Jews as possible to make aliyah, the Law of Return and its amendment realized the dream of generations, the vision of the Prophets, and the natural right of the Jewish people to a homeland of their own. Both secular and religious leaders felt that the vast aliyah, which included non-Jews who had joined Jewish families, was the fulfillment of the vision of the Prophets: “The Lord will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land. Foreigners will join them and unite with the descendants of Jacob.” (Isaiah 14:1)

Even leaders remotely connected to religious faith expressed such viewpoints. In 1950, Ben-Gurion declared that “the Law of Return and the law of citizenship… determine the special nature and purpose of the State of Israel as a state that carries the vision of the salvation of Israel.”

In 1970, just before the amendment was passed, then-MK Ya’akov Hazan, leader of the left-wing United Workers Party (“MAPAM”) and member of “Hashomer Hatzair,” said: “Here we stand before the almost messianic phenomenon of national awakening among the young generation of Jews in the USSR… They are drawn to Israel in their multitudes, and they will come… Their coming will largely determine the shape of our entire future.”

It cannot be denied that over the years, in the wake of the grandchild amendment, the portion of non-Jews among the olim grew to about 70 percent. That means that changing or annulling the grandchild amendment might result in a reduction of a similar magnitude in the number of olim coming to Israel. In the long run, such a decrease might have a severe negative impact on the country’s development, possibly even endangering the Jewish demographic majority. Those who oppose the grandchild amendment might claim that bringing so many non-Jews to Israel is in itself a threat to the Jewish majority. To respond to this claim, we must first address the following question: what is the identity of those who come here by virtue of the grandchild amendment? And what is the right policy regarding these olim?

First, we must distinguish between the objective halakhic definition and the subjective self-definition of identity. The Law of Return states that being a Jew is determined by the halakha, namely having a Jewish mother or conversion to Judaism. The definition of the right of return, however, is based on nationality rather than religion. Studies examining the views of olim have found that they regard themselves as an integral part of the Jewish collective.

The comprehensive study conducted by Dr. Zeev Hanin, Chief Scientist of Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration (published by Beit Morasha, 2014) produced the following findings: 53.3% declared that their identity was “Jewish Israeli”; 36.6% felt that they had a double identity; and only 10.1% defined themselves as non-Jews or unable to define their identity. In other words: about 90% see themselves as Jews. In addition, many of the olim place themselves on the religious-traditional-secular spectrum of Israeli society, and quite a few desire to formally convert to Judaism: 6% are greatly interested in converting, 27% are interested in some extent, and 52% have yet to form an opinion.

In light of these findings, aliyah should be viewed as a force that increases the Jewish majority in Israel, even if it includes a considerable number of non-Jews. With substantial efforts, the right approach, and a policy of inclusion, these olim can be connected to our Jewish-Israeli society, while pushing them out of the Jewish-Israeli collective might prove disastrous. A change in the Law of Return can be expected to significantly reduce the scope of aliyah to Israel, while also deepening the rift between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, perhaps irreparably. The Law of Return is the main law determining the identity of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people, infusing this definition with real, not merely declaratory, meaning.

So, what can be done?

First, we must understand the demographic profile, cultural trends, and identity-related characteristics of the Jewish people today. We must make up our minds that we have a vested interest in all their diverse hues, and that we refuse to relinquish the so-called “banished.” Second, we must realize that the identity of Israel as a Jewish state depends not only on the formal halakhic definition of the identity of the olim, but also on Israeli society’s affinity with the traditions, spirit, and moral values of Judaism. By welcoming the olim with open arms and showing them an ethical Israeli Judaism with values of inclusion and solidarity, Israeli society can strengthen their Jewish identity and their affinity with Jewish heritage and the Jews of Israel. We must thus conclude that a dramatic turnaround is needed on several major planes:

  • The official Israeli system in charge of conversion to Judaism: The Jewish halakha prescribes an inviting, inclusive approach that brings people closer, as evident in hundreds of responses of decisors — poskim (rabbis who decide matters in Jewish religious law). The policy of the conversion courts must be adapted to the urgent national mission of converting the olim to Judaism.
  • Israel’s education system: Offering bar/bat mitzvah programs that include conversion enabling the conversion of about 100,000 young Israeli-born students, children of olim, who identify themselves as Israelis.
  • Social-cultural integration: Encouraging social and cultural initiatives in community centers that include both locals and olim, as well as integrating the young olim and the children of olim into the activities of Israeli youth movements.
  • Strategic goal: Israel should set an aliyah oriented strategic goal — one million olim in the next decade.

Is there any feasibility for such large-scale transformations? I believe that the answer is yes — if we take the right steps. My opinion is based on many years of experience. For over two decades, it has been my privilege to found and lead “NATIV – The National Center for Identity and Conversion,” the world’s largest school for Jewish Studies. NATIV was established by the government who adopted this recommendation of the Neeman Committee charged with developing ideas and proposals regarding the issue of religious conversion in Israel. Over the past 20 years, about 165,000 olim attended NATIV — proving that it is possible and practicable to work in large numbers. To this, we must add the regrettable rise in antisemitism worldwide, which may fuel increasing waves of aliyah.

We are living in a time of great dangers, but also of historic opportunity. At this time a multidimensional future-molding strategy is needed to address the challenges facing the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Increased aliyah and welcoming conversion procedures are essential for building the Israeli nation’s strength and resilience.

This is a time of emergency, but also a time of great promise. We must act!

About the Author
Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom is the founder and president of Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, and the founding Chairman of “NATIV – the National Center for Jewish Studies, Identity and Conversion” – a joint Israeli government and Jewish Agency project that combines Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform perspectives while meeting the requirements of Jewish law. In 2004 Ish-Shalom was awarded the AVI CHAI Prize for Leadership in Promoting Jewish Unity.
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