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The urgent need to fix the inconsistencies of the Law of Return

Jewish immigrants fleeing the war in Ukraine on a rescue flight arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, March 6, 2022. (Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Simcha Rothman, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, was said to have “ruffled a few feathers” last Monday, at a talk he gave before the Jewish Federations of North America, when he pointed out the absurdity of Israel’s Law of Return.

Rothman was referring to the fact that a Jew, who converts to Christianity or Islam, is not eligible for citizenship, while the Christian or Moslem grandchild of a Jew is. It is exactly this inconsistency that he sees as very problematic. His solution is simple! Get rid of the grandfather clause amendment of 1970, which he claims is irrelevant since no one from America is trying to immigrate under that status anyway.

Here is where Rothman errs. Given the massive numbers of intermarriage among American Jews  (some citing the number as high as 72%, according to a 2021 Pew Research poll) and the increasing rise of antisemitism, especially on US campuses, there are potentially quite a few grandchildren of Jews who, one day, might want to immigrate to Israel. Under the present law, they are eligible to do so.

But putting that aside, why should the preferred religion, or lack of it, enter into the equation of aliyah at all? If a Jew believes there is no God, does he cease being a Jew by birth? Perhaps the greatest absurdity of all is that someone thinks that Jewish ethnicity can be erased or trumped by belief in another faith. It can’t, and the sooner that that is understood, the easier it will be to fix this inconsistency within the Law of Return.  

Rothman justifies his objections to preserving the grandfather clause by stating, “There are about 70% who are not Jewish, according to Jewish law, and most of them made aliyah according to the grandchild clause. Most of them come, take a passport, and go to other countries.” While that may be true of some, it is likely not true about the majority, and here’s the reason why. 

Anyone who chooses to take advantage of the grandfather clause, in the Law of Return, is doing so for a reason. They know that they are eligible for citizenship, per the present law, and while they may not be ready to fully commit to life in Israel, at this particular moment in time, they wouldn’t be going through the tedious and complicated process of obtaining Israeli citizenship if they didn’t think they’d ever use it, by making the move here someday.

Indeed, it’s not easy to jump into the water without first having all of one’s ducks in a row. That includes a job, language acquisition, and the willingness to disconnect from friends, family and familiar surroundings. No one knows that better than another immigrant, of which I am one.

Preparing for aliyah can be a long process

From the time I decided I wanted to immigrate to Israel, it took me 10 years to feel adequately prepared to do so. During that time, I studied Hebrew, purchased property in Israel, made several trips back and forth, and did all I could to assure that my transition would be as smooth as possible.

Even from the time I applied for citizenship, it took me a year and a half to actually physically arrive here permanently. It’s now been 30 years, with a successful transition, and I don’t regret having done all the preparation and legwork that was required beforehand. 

Rothman, having been born in Bnei Brak, would not know about these things. He would not understand the huge probability of American Jews intermarrying, simply because the marriage pool of gentiles is so much larger there, making the chances of being exposed to non-Jews infinitely greater. He also fails to understand that being born Jewish is in a person’s DNA whether or not a person is observant.

Sadly, it’s a fact that so many religious Jews don’t ever consider. Having Jewish blood is an automatic game changer, affecting the deepest parts of one’s inner being. You’re different. You know you’re different, and those differences continually resurface in a variety of ways – all of which pull you back to your unique cultural ethnicity. And one of those magnets is the desire to return to your ancestral homeland.

This was probably one of the factors that led to the 1970 amendment to the Law of Return, allowing for the third generation to be recognized as those who are also eligible for Israeli citizenship. But now, a native-born Israeli, who takes it all for granted, thinks that those people should suddenly be disqualified, because “some of them are not immediately arriving at our shores.”

In contrast to this arrogant dismissal, of an entire generation of grandchildren of Jews, opposition leader, Yair Lapid, addressed the same 2,000-person audience on Monday, saying, “Don’t give up on us. I know you’re worried. I know you’re nervous. I know you might even be angry. I’m worried too.  

“The reason we’re worried or angry or nervous or even scared is because we care, because we love this place, because we want our children to feel connected to it, because we want them to know Israel is always a home for every Jew wherever he or she lives.”

The Law of Return is, indeed, problematic in its inconsistency to allow the grandchild of a Jew to immigrate, regardless of their persuasion of faith, while not allowing a first-generation born Jew to do the same if their preferred faith does not comport with what rabbinical law says it should.

No Jew should have their ethnic bloodline called into question solely based on a connection of what is being defined as “the Jewish religion” according to Halacha (Jewish law). To do so is to force an unbreakable link, to exist, where one doesn’t necessarily. 

A woman doesn’t have to bear children to prove she is a woman. A tree that sheds its leaves in autumn doesn’t cease to be called a tree. Likewise, those who are born Jewish needn’t prove their authentic, ethnic bloodline by observing a religion with which they may not agree.

There is an urgency, now more than ever, to come to terms with the proper definition of what it means to be accepted as a Jew, so that those who were born with that blood, may finally feel that they, too, are part of the tribe, simply because they are!

This article originally appeared on The Jerusalem Post and is reposted with permission.

ALL ISRAEL NEWS is committed to fair and balanced coverage and analysis, and honored to publish a wide-range of opinions. That said, views expressed by guest columnists may not necessarily reflect the views of our staff.

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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