Millions of grandchildren of Jews in the world, many who identify as Jews and supporters of Israel, may lose the right to make Aliyah – immigrate to Israel, based on the Law of Return. In addition, the danger is that the rift between Israel and the Diaspora Jews will deepen even more.
For more than 50 years, Israel avoided touching the Law of Return, but now it seems that the future government may act on a historic change that will directly affect immigration to Israel. The cancellation of the grandson clause will damage the purpose of the Law of Return, deepen the rifts with the Jews of the Diaspora, split families, and prevent young people of Jewish origin who were educated on the love of the land from tying their fate to ours.
Who is a Jew? Definition in the Law of Return
Governments have risen and fallen in Israel, but since 1970 the state has avoided touching the sections of the Law of Return as a matter of the status quo. The Law of Return did not include in 1950, when it was enacted, a definition of who is a Jew. The definition was only added in 1970, and in accordance with Orthodox religious law it was determined that a Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother or who converted.
The amendment to the law came after a political uproar surrounding a ruling by the Supreme Court to register children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as having Jewish nationality at the Ministry of the Interior. Along with narrowing the definition of a Jew in the amendment to the Law of Return of 1970, the circle of those entitled to immigrate was also expanded for children and grandchildren of Jews, including their spouses.
The grandson clause has been criticized over the years by religious parties, but apparently only recently the conditions have matured to demand the change of the Law of Return as a condition for their joining the coalition led by Prime Minister Netanyahu. What changed? The public in Israel has become more right-wing and the Shas party, which previously sat on the fence, has become more and more identified with right-wing world views alongside conservatism in matters of Jewish affinity. Now, members of the parties feel confident enough to “break the status quo” when they take advantage the political power that the public gave them.
In fact, the proposal to cancel the grandson clause in the Law of Return is not new. It only conjures up a proposal by MK Bezalel Smotrich, the head of religious Zionism party, from 2020. However, Smotrich is now determined to complete it, as he enjoys public sympathy in view of the election results and shares a common view with the other partners in the government that will be formed.
Violation of the purpose of the Law of Return
The main reason for the desire to abolish the grandson clause is the fear of the arrival of immigrants to Israel, mainly from the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, who are not Jewish according to the Halacha (Orthodox law) and harm the Jewish image of the country. Indeed, data shows that more than half of the immigrants to Israel since the great wave of immigration in 1990 are not Jewish according to Halacha definition. This is about half a million citizens of Israel today, who are defined as “non-religious”.
At the same time, the purpose of the Law of Return is clear: to allow all Jews their descendants from all over the world to immigrate to Israel, in order for Israel to be a national home for the Jewish people. The grandson clause was not added without reason but is an accurate expression of the purpose of the law. Even if the grandson is not Jewish according to Halacha and only his grandfather or father is Jewish, why should it be assumed that his connection to Israel is lower? Is it the very gender of the Jewish parent that determines his attachment to Israel?
Demographer Professor Sergio Della-Pergola claims that cancelling the grandson clause will deny three million grandchildren of Jews worldwide the right to immigrate to Israel by way of return. We are talking about those entitled to Aliyah, some of whom were certainly educated on the values of Zionism and love of the land, identify as Jews and sometimes even suffer anti-Semitism in their countries of origin, but are not considered Jews according to orthodox rule. Also, the cancellation of the clause will lead to a decrease in the number of immigrants who aspire to contribute to the state, serve in the IDF and establish a home in Israel.
Beyond the lack of logic and justice of the move to reduce the Law of Return, this will further deepen the rift between Diaspora Jews, many of whom are married to non-Jews, and the State of Israel. We will do well if we work to unite and not tear, we work for equality and not discrimination and we use common sense over the strictness of a narrow religious definition. The cancellation of the grandson clause in the Law of Return will specifically harm those who want to strengthen the Jewish people.