Shvili: The problems with Israel’s Law of Return

(Amos Ben Gershon/GPO photo)

On Nov. 7, Israel marked Yom ha-Aliyah, or Aliyah Day, in celebration of those who have come to Israel as olim, the Hebrew word for Jews who immigrate to Israel. Aliyah is the ultimate commitment to the Zionist ideal of recreating and maintaining an independent Jewish state in the biblical Land of Israel. Like Canada, modern Israel is a country of immigrants, but unlike Canada, it is not a nation in which Jews are coming to live for the first time. Rather, it is a country to which Jews are returning, as it is their ancestral homeland. For this reason, the law under which all Jews are allowed to come and live in Israel is known as the Law of Return.

Passed in 1950, just two years after independence, the Law of Return gives Jews from anywhere in the world the right to live in the State of Israel. Contrary to popular belief, this law does not accord every Jew the right to citizenship in the country. This is a facet of the Nationality Law, which bequeaths citizenship on anyone who immigrates to Israel under the Law of Return. They are two distinct laws. Another common misconception is that Israel is alone in having laws that give special immigration and citizenship rights to a particular ethnic or religious group. The fact is that several countries, including Germany, Greece, Hungary and Ireland have similar laws.

Israel’s immigration and citizenship laws do, however, present certain challenges. Perhaps the biggest of these challenges is answering a question that has always been vigorously debated: who is a Jew? According to Jewish law, a person is considered a Jew if his or her mother is Jewish. This is the same definition given in the Law of Return, however, the law also allows a person to be an oleh if he or she has a Jewish grandparent or is married to a Jewish person, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves Jewish. This has proved controversial because it raises the prospect that people immigrating to the country are not really Jewish and have no real connection to the Jewish culture or religion, which is a major problem when the objective of bringing new people to Israel is to maintain and enhance its Jewish identity. There is a widely prevailing feeling in Israel that some people who immigrate under the Law of Return are doing so simply to take advantage of what Israel has to offer in terms of a stable economy and a relatively high standard of living, not to mention the very generous financial incentives that the Jewish state gives to new Jewish immigrants.

The Law of Return also stipulates that converts to Judaism can immigrate under the law, which presents another problem in that there is no consensus on what constitutes conversion. As it stands now, only Orthodox conversions are recognized in Israel, which many Jews view as discriminatory, since not all Jews are Orthodox. In fact, the majority of Jews in the Diaspora are not Orthodox, but consider themselves members of Reform, Conservative or other streams of Judaism. Anyone who has studied Israeli politics will tell you that the institutional Orthodox monopoly on Judaism in Israel has long been a source of tension between Israeli Jews and Jews living in the Diaspora.

So how should Israel address the problems created by the Law of Return? One way could be to enact stricter criteria for immigrating under the law, which could include cancelling the amendment made to it in 1970 that allows people with Jewish grandparents or spouses to become olim. These people would still be able to immigrate to Israel, but would have to do so under the Law of Entry, which is the law under which non-Jews immigrate to Israel. They would also not be granted immediate citizenship under the Nationality Law, but would have to reside in Israel for three out of five years, have at least some knowledge of the Hebrew language and renounce their foreign nationality.

This still, however, doesn’t resolve the problem of converts to Judaism who wish to immigrate to Israel. The best solution to this problem would probably be to recognize non-Orthodox conversions in the country, so that people who want to convert to Judaism in Israel can do so under the auspices of the Reform, Conservative or other Jewish movements. Achieving this, however, would be extremely difficult since Israel’s Orthodox establishment is very powerful and will stop at nothing to ensure that it keeps its monopoly on all affairs regarding the Jewish religion.

There is the option of abolishing the Law of Return altogether so that Israel no longer has to deal with the problem of defining who is a Jew. The result of this would be that Jews would no longer be given a fast track to Israeli citizenship or any of the other perks that come with being an oleh in Israel today. Doing this, however, would run counter to the country’s identity as a Jewish state.