Published in The Jerusalem Post on December 5, 1999
Has the Law of Return, Zionism’s ultimate instrument for the ingathering of the exiles, inadvertently become an mechanism for creeping de-Judaization of Israel? The answer is yes, and therefore it is time, alas, to amend the law.
There are many good reasons not to tamper with the until-now sacrosanct Zionist canon called the Law of Return. The law has been the soul of Zionism and our penultimate response to Hitler. That is why it set a ‘one-Jewish-grandparent’ test as the eligibility boundary for automatic citizenship.
Re-negotiation of the law is dicey business as well because it opens the door for a post-Zionist, anti-Jewish challenge to the historic legislation. It is a “discriminatory” law, the post-Zionists will say, inappropriate for a “Western democracy”.
Arguing for a change in the Law of Return also has been politically incorrect until now, because haredi politicians have led the charge. This is especially true after the ugly attacks on Russian immigrants launched recently by haredi politicians Shlomo Benizri and Chaim Halpert.
Nevertheless, change the law we must. Left unchecked and unreformed, the liberal immigration code effectively will transport to Israel the intermarriage and assimilation plague that is ravaging the Diaspora.
Twenty-four percent of Russian immigrants over the past decade have not been even the slightest bit Jewish, by any definition. This past year, non-Jews accounted for 53 percent of olim (some reports say 57 percent), including a significant number of practicing Christians. For the first time in decades, Israeli churches are reported to be full.
That makes for over 200,000 *goyishe* olim, including 30,000-50,000 youth. It is estimated that 500,000 additional non-Jews in Russia have the right to automatic Israeli citizenship.
Why is this so? Because the Law of Return recklessly guarantees automatic Israeli citizenship even to the non-Jewish grandchild of a non-Jewish grandmother who was once married briefly to a Jewish man who is long dead and never heard or thought of Israel. This then allows the family’s non-Jewish *great*-grandchildren to immigrate too, under regular naturalization law. And so forth and so on.
This is absurd! The intent of the law was noble, but its free-wheeling, anarchic application is untenable.
What this means is that twenty years from now, the nice “Israeli” guy from chemistry class at Bar-Ilan or Tel Aviv universities with whom your daughter falls in love – could well be thoroughly Christian. It was precisely to avoid dilemmas of this nature that many of us came to Israel!
This is no-one’s fault. Certainly not the Russians. Rather, it is the by-product of an incredible, almost unimaginable aliyah success story. Were American Jewry to embark on aliyah en masse, its many intermarried families and all, we would have the very same problem under the current Law of Return guidelines.
THE RUSSIAN ALIYAH success story forces us to ask – just how is Israel uniquely Jewish? Some say that “Jewish identity” for Israel means retaining the demographic edge, a simple Jewish majority. Others, seek the Jewish character of Israel in a cultural, national collective. For its part, Orthodox tradition is very clear as to what defines Jewish identity.
Now I’m not sure that as a society we’re ready to face head-on the challenge of pinning-down our Jewish identity. But under any of the above alternate definitions, the current Law of Return is no longer appropriate. It dangerously enfeebles the demographic, cultural and halachic boundaries of Jewishness in Israel.
Even the Russians – the Jewish olim — have taken up the cause and are clamoring for a change in the immigration legislation. They understand that the Russian immigrant non-Jews, many of whom are ambivalent at best about Zionism or jaundiced about Jews — give the Russian Jewish aliyah a bad name.
Last month, Yisrael Be’Aliyah agreed to support a haredi proposal to cancel the ‘grandchild’ clause; a minimalist change in the Law of Return that would avoid opening a Pandora’s box of identity questions. But that would reduce the number of immigrating non-Jews, says Natan Sharansky, by only about three percent.
Much more change is needed, as is level-headed government leadership. Our fist-pounding Prime Minister doesn’t need this particular headache just now, but the weighty issue is too sensitive a matter to be left in the hands of fringe legislators of the non-Zionist, haredi Right, or the post-Zionist or non-Jewish/Arab Left. This is a problem first and foremost for the secular Israeli Zionist mainstream.
Ironic, isn’t it? An Zionist cornerstone, out-of-control, is contributing to the diminishment of Israel’s Jewish character. Prime Minister Ehud Barak, along with Absorption Minister Yuli Tamir and World Jewish Community Minister Rabbi Melchior, have a responsibility to steer a corrective course in immigration policy that protects, not threatens, the Jewishness of Israel.