To Tell the Truth: Israel's Unthinkable Debate; Abolishing the Law of Return

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To Tell the Truth: Israel's Unthinkable Debate; Abolishing the Law of Return

By Leon T. Hadar

Since Israel's establishment, its "Law of Return" has guaranteed automatic citizenship to any Jew who sets foot in the Holy Land. The conventional wisdom has been that while Israeli Jews may be divided over the future of the occupied territories, the relationship between religion and state, and the ties with the Jewish diaspora, all but the "lunatic fringe" were united over the need to maintain the Law of Return. It is the ideological basis of the Jewish state that secures the right of every "exiled" Jew to make "Aliyah" to the Jewish homeland.

Almost all Israelis--Labor and Likud, hawks and doves, Orthodox Jews and secularists--agreed that abolishing this Zionist creed would symbolize the end of the Jewish State as it has existed since 1948. Anyone who proposed replacing the 1950 Law of Return with new legislation providing the same immigration rights for Jews and non-Jews alike was immediately branded as "anti-Israeli" or "anti-Semitic," advancing an agenda aimed at obliterating Israel and exterminating its Jewish population. (Although there is a separate 1952 "Citizenship Law" that in theory permits the government to grant citizenship to non-Jewish immigrants who fulfill certain residence requirements, it has rarely been applied.)

On one level, the existence of the Law of Return helped Israel to project its humanitarian face, as a provider of shelter and protection to Holocaust survivors, to immigrants fleeing totalitarian Communist regimes, and to starving refugees from Ethiopia. (That this "humanitarian" project created hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees seemed to be beside the point to most Israelis and their Western supporters.)

On another level, the centrality of the Law of Return in Israeli life stemmed from existential concerns. It has been the most effective mechanism to relocate millions of Jews to the State of Israel, so as to provide it with a demographic defense vis-a-vis the Palestinians and the Arab world, and to increase its military strength and economic resources.

There is little doubt that Israel would have found it very difficult to survive if it had not been for the massive waves of Jewish immigrants who have arrived in Israel since 1948. (Again, the fact that most of these immigrants to Israel, including those who have recently arrived from the former Soviet Union, would have preferred to relocate to the United States or Western Europe was rarely discussed by those who romanticized the idea of "Aliyah.")

In fact, the Law of Return, which simply declares that "any Jew has the right to make Aliyah to the state" (with the exception of criminals and those who threaten the public's health), did ignite a major debate in Israel. It was not about the law's discrimination against non-Jews, including the original Palestinian inhabitants of the country, but about who, exactly, was a Jew.

The pool of potential authentic Jewish immigrants is depleting.

The law was amended in 1970 to provide the Right of Return not only to "pure" Jews but also to non-Jewish spouses and children of Jewish immigrants. However, many American Jews continue to criticize the Law of Return for not recognizing as Jews those who have been converted to Judaism by rabbis of Reform or Conservative congregations, with which most practicing American Jews are affiliated. Similarly, some secular Israelis have criticized the law for granting Orthodox Jewish rabbis the exclusive right to decide "who is a Jew," and suggested that the state should make that decision based on a more secular concept of Jewish nationalism.

Nevertheless, the notion of Israelis discussing in newspaper articles and in the Knesset (parliament) the elimination of Israel's Law of Return can only be compared to the idea of Americans debating abolishing the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. It was just inconceivable--until recently. …