One of the resolutions presented at the recent extraordinary session of the World Zionist Congress called upon the Israeli government “not to amend the Law of Return.”
Authored by Rabbi Mauricio Balter, executive director of Mercaz Olami and Masorti Olami, the resolution described the Law of Return as “a festive symbol of Jewish peoplehood at its best, a glamorous, Zionist symbol like no other which defines the collective borders of the Jewish people.”
Israel’s Law of Return was enacted on July 5, 1950, in part as a celebration of the yahrzeit of Theodore Herzl, a move affirming Herzl’s passionate commitment to creating a sovereign Jewish state as a safe haven for persecuted Jews fleeing lands of affliction.
The law proclaimed that “every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh,” a new immigrant/citizen. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, insisted that the law affirmed a pre-existing right that was “inherent in him [or her] from the very fact of being a Jew…. This right preceded the state; this right built the state; its source is to be found in the historic and never-broken connection between the Jewish people and the homeland.”
The Law of Return was amended in 1970 to add more clarity to its definition of what it means to be Jewish. The amendment extended the right to people of no religion who have a Jewish father or grandfather. (Note: Of course those with a Jewish mother and/or grandmother were automatically regarded as Jews.) The amendment also listed people who had converted to Judaism under the auspices of any recognized Diaspora religious stream. In 2021, Israel’s Supreme Court further ruled that Reform and Conservative converts from the Diaspora who converted inside Israel also would be recognized as eligible for the Law of Return.
Charedi parties have spearheaded efforts to alter the expansions enacted in 1970 and 2021. In 2023, this push for change has been promoted by the ultranationalist Religious Zionist Party of Bezalel Smotrich and by Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party.
Yet any changes in the Law of Return would cause widespread dissension. Why?
* Russian Jews would become alienated. Israeli society contains large blocs of diverse voters: secular and religious, Ashkenazim and Mizrachim, charedim and religious Zionists, etc. One large group — the more than one million Russian-speaking Israelis — is represented by the One Million Lobby. Leaders of this group say that an alteration of the Law of Return would alienate the half-million Jews from the former Soviet Union who claim “no religion,” are of questionable halachic status, and live in Israel. These people consider themselves to be Jews, as do their friends and relatives still living in FSU countries.
* Opposition to a change in the Law of Return is multipartisan and voiced by folks across a spectrum of views. Alterations are opposed by most centrist and center-left Israelis and are at odds with the views of many Israelis on the right. Why? In fact, many supporters of Likud and other right-wing Israeli parties are olim from the FSU or Israeli spouses of these olim.
* The cultural norms of the Jewish communities around the world are diverse. Israeli Jewry’s norms differ from those in other places. For example, FSU countries define people’s ethnic identity in a patrilineal manner; Israeli/Jewish norms follow matrilineal descent. Acceptance of patrilineal transmission identity is also accepted for Reform Jews in the United States.
* Jewish criteria with regard to “peoplehood” dictate that no change be made. The Law of Return and the eligibility for aliyah it confers serves as the gatekeeper for entry into the Jewish people. Israel’s Law of Return extends beyond religious definitions of Jewishness. It deals as well with Israeli civic matters of state. Israel is the state not of Orthodox Jews but of a broader entity. It is “the state of the Jewish people.”
* Jewish pluralism is an established condition of modern Jewish life: As noted by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, “The Law of Return was not fashioned to certify a person for inclusion in a minyan, or to be called to the Torah, or as a suitable marriage partner. Rather it is the lofty gesture of a secular body [the Knesset], left intentionally vague to do justice to the irreversible diversity of modern Jewry.”
* We live in an age of mounting antisemitism with tangible danger for Jews worldwide. In these times, it is important to recall that the Law of Return was established initially as a mirror image and remedy against the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 Nazi Germany. These racist and antisemitic measures applied to all Jews, defined as those with at least one Jewish grandparent, removing their rights and exposing them to persecution. It’s crucial now that nothing be done to endanger the lives of people identified as Jews by the societies in which they live.
* Any changes in any details of the Law of Return — which has not been touched for 50 years — would open the door to further alterations. As former Likud minister and current Tikva Hadasha MK Ze’ev Elkin said, “If you touch it once, then someone else will touch it.”
* Change would set in motion a clash between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. According to prominent educator Avraham Infeld, “The Zionist movement did not create a nation-state for a group of people who shared a common geographic area, but rather for the global Jewish people living scattered around the world.” Altering the Law of Return would renege on a sacred commitment made in 1950, 1970, and 2021 to world Jewry. It would launch divisive debates about whether defining “Who is a Jew?” ought to be based upon narrow ultra-Orthodox grounds. The message would be that people who are part of Diaspora non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities have no right to be in Israel.
* A matter of life and death: Massive numbers of refugees are leaving places like Ukraine and Russia. The lives of both Jews and people of Jewish lineage (Zera Yisrael) are on the line, and they are seeking safety in the Jewish state. The Law of Return fulfills Herzl’s vision of a country that serves as a refuge for persecuted folks identified by others as Jews. Dr. Infeld has written that today “there are more displaced persons than at any time in history. At the same time, there isn’t a single [stranded] Jewish refugee. There is only one reason for that: The State of Israel [and its Law of Return]”
* Bitter battles regarding conversions would occur all over the globe. The charedim do not accept Reform and Conservative conversions, whether they are conducted in Israel or globally. They also reject many conversions conducted by non-Haredi Orthodox batei din in Medinat Yisrael and in the Diaspora — even those conducted under the auspices of the IDF.
* Debate about this proposed change would weaken the commitment to the state of secular Russian-Israelis and their relatives and friends. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have made aliyah; they have mastered Hebrew, worked and made contributions to society, served in the IDF, and are immersed in Israeli culture. They would resent being told that many of their peers and relatives don’t really belong.
In sum, as Rabbi Balter’s resolution concluded, “an amendment to the Law of Return will alienate hundreds of thousands of people of Jewish descent and have a disastrous impact on aliyah.”
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D., became rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell in 2020; he began there in 1979. He’s headed the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel, and Mercaz Olami.