Hands Off The Law of Return!

by Maskil on February 25, 2009

I get very nervous when I hear of plans to modify Israel’s Law of Return, such as the latest initiative on the part of Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, involving a special committee headed by Professor Yaakov Ne’eman.

In its present form, the Law of Return includes – let’s call them – the Hitler provisions, allowing those with even just one Jewish grandparent to seek sanctuary in the State of Israel and receive citizenship with all its benefits and responsibilities. This is Israel’s ex post facto response to the Holocaust, during which the most observant, Halachically correct Jew shared the same horrific fate as the most bewildered, assimilated person with the misfortune to have had a Jewish grandparent.

This noble piece of legislation – one of Israel’s defining laws – sets Israel apart from every other state in the world, making it the one place on the entire planet that will automatically provide a home to anyone persecuted for being a Jew (or being considered one).

So why am I nervous? And why is this law – which some would see as the very essence of Zionism – under scrutiny, if not attack?

I’m nervous because of the way in which Israeli officialdom has bent to the will of the most backward, anti-Zionist elements within Israeli society – the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi sector – and I therefore find it difficult to believe that it will be any different in this case.

And why is the law under attack? Apparently because it “has been abused, allowing ‘people that have nothing to do with Judaism’ to receive automatic Israeli citizenship.” And just for good measure, because “1 million illegal immigrants [are] living in Israel”.

Scary stuff, but is that really the case? And if so, is the Law of Return to blame?

I believe that the problem is not with ‘people that have nothing to do with Judaism’, but the fact that Haredi domination of vital roles in the whole absorption process. This has meant that far too many were denied a soft landing, a clear and unobstructed path back to Judaism and to integration into Jewish and Israeli society. They were given no way of becoming Jewish that did not involve adopting the complete Haredi lifestyle, a path that most of the Jews by birth alive today reject!

It is very ironic indeed that for decades we praised Soviet Jewry for maintaining a tenuous connection to their Judaism, Jewishness and Zionism, despite all the odds against it. Now that they’ve finally come home, they are scorned for not being Jewish enough, for not being Halachically pure enough, for not being observant enough, or for having non-Jewish ancestors, partners or children. In the name of all that is holy, just what did you expect?!

As for the laughable figure of “1 million illegal immigrants” supposedly living in Israel, dragging this issue in here simply muddies the water, as issues around foreign workers and Palestinian family reunification clearly have nothing to do with the Law of Return.

No doubt the law has been abused by those who are not genuine in a desire to make Aliya as part of a return to their roots. The blame for that, however, must be laid at the door of those responsible for the whole Aliya process, not the law itself.

Judging by the tone of the report in Ynetnews, however, my impression is that this review will be used to disenfranchise the “sociological Jews”, such as those who made up almost a third of the total Russian Aliya of the 90s and later.

If they insist on tampering with it, what could or should be amended? I think that all except the ill-intentioned would agree that the safe refuge provided by the “Hitler provisions” must remain. To undo those provisions would literally set us on the path of unwinding the entire Zionist enterprise. Having been granted that potentially life-saving residence however, few would object to the idea of so-called sociological Jews following a normal rather than a fast-track path to citizenship. That normal track might include a 5-year residence requirement, a civics exam, fluency in Hebrew and an oath of loyalty.

Finally, the provisions and impact of the Law of Return cannot be separated from what has been termed the “Conversion Crisis” in Israel. Changes to the law must go hand in hand with changes that will give all the major streams of Judaism absolute parity when it comes to recognition of conversions; performed both within and outside of Israel. The time for Israelis (or potential Israelis) to enjoy freedom of religion (along with the rest of the civilised world) is long overdue.

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