The Looming War Over Israel’s Law of Return

Over the coming years, Israel’s most famous law will become an object of political gamesmanship and a potential tool for demographic engineering—no matter who will be in power.

July 3, 2023 | Rafi DeMogge
About the author: Rafi DeMogge is the pseudonym of an Israel-based author and researcher who writes on political demography. You can follow him on Twitter @HeTows.
An anti-judicial reform demonstration in Israel in April 2023. Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Soon after the right-religious bloc, led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, won a governing mandate in Israel’s elections last November, attention turned to the increasingly ambitious demands of the religious and ḥaredi parties that underpinned that victory. One of those demands was for the revocation of a key provision of Israel’s Law of Return, a provision known colloquially as the Grandchild Clause. The clause is perhaps the most familiar, to both Israelis and to foreigners, of any in Israeli law: it guarantees citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent. Correspondingly, the demand to revoke it was controversial, drawing outcry from much of the Israeli public, including from part of the Likud party itself, and especially from American Jews and their representative organizations. For these reasons the proposal was dropped by the end of January of this year, and the government moved to focus instead on other issues, including judicial reform.

But the controversy over the Law of Return and the Grandchild Clause isn’t over. If anything, what happened last year may well be the opening skirmishes in a war that will last years if not decades. Indeed, there’s a good chance that the Grandchild Clause will one day be more controversial than the judicial reforms that nearly tore the country apart earlier this year, as well as more meaningful in what it reveals about Israeli society. It could even rival in its importance a number of other historically contentious issues in Israel, such as the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This is no accident, since the Grandchild Clause is related to the core issue that has come to replace the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the most crucial fault line in Israeli politics, the issue that all other issues are organized around, issues of the deepest identity: who are we, and whose country is this? Both sides in the bitter controversy over Israel’s identity nominally subscribe to the slogan that theirs is a Jewish, democratic state. But there is little agreement on how this slogan should be filled with content. Moreover, the ideological convictions that fuel opposing attitudes to the Grandchild Clause are inextricably linked to political and demographic self-interest, of which both sides are increasingly conscious. This is the final ingredient needed for a ferocious culture war.


I. The Grandchild Clause and Its Beneficiaries


Passed in 1950, two years after Israel declared independence, the Law of Return grants every Jew the automatic right to settle in Israel and receive Israeli citizenship. In David Ben-Gurion’s view, expressed in a speech that year to the Knesset, the Law of Return does not actually grant anything; it merely recognizes every Jew’s inherent right to settle in Israel:

This law does not provide for the state to bestow the right to settle upon the Jew living abroad; it affirms that this right is inherent in him from the very fact of being a Jew; the state does not grant the right of return to the Jews of the Diaspora; . . . its source is to be found in the historic and never-broken connection between the Jewish people and the homeland.

In the early years of the state, no explicit definition of who counts as a Jew for the purposes of the Law of Return was given, but legal practice largely followed the definition given in Jewish law (halakhah), the definition accepted by Orthodox and Conservative rabbis: a Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother or who underwent formal conversion under the supervision of a rabbi.

Twenty years later, in 1970, the Law of Return was amended to include a further detail, expressed in the following sentence: “The rights of a Jew under this Law . . .  are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his/her religion.” This sentence, of course, became known as the Grandchild Clause, and it guarantees the right to immigration and citizenship to anyone with a single Jewish grandparent.

The reason the Knesset decided to amend the Law of Return to include this clause is a matter of some historical debate. Often, Nazi Germany’s so-called Nuremberg laws, passed to exclude Jews and those of Jewish descent from German society, are cited, on the grounds that if someone is Jewish enough to have been murdered by Hitler, then he is Jewish enough to come to Israel. The problem with this explanation is simple: there is no evidence that the Nuremberg laws played any role in the 1970 amendment. The real reason seems related to several other factors, including: the arrival of numerous mixed-religion families from Poland in 1968, who left their home country in the wake of an anti-Semitic government campaign; the much higher fertility rate of Arabs than Jews at the time, which produced an anxious desire for more Jews (broadly understood); and, perhaps, a desire to slow the assimilation of Diaspora Jews by making their immigration to Israel easier.

Those who arrive in Israel under the Grandchild Clause are categorized by the government as Others, the designation given to Israeli citizens who are neither Jews nor Arabs.

Today, new immigrants who arrive in Israel under the Grandchild Clause are categorized in the government’s population registry as Others, the designation given to Israeli citizens who are neither Jews nor Arabs and who are typically registered as having no religion. Israel’s system of family law is unprepared for these Others, who, since they have no religion and Israel has no civil marriage, are unable to legally marry. (The most popular loophole is for civil marriages to be performed abroad, and these marriages are then recognized in Israel.) In other respects, the status of Others resembles that of non-ḥaredi Jews; most notably, they are obliged to serve in the military. It is sometimes said that the Grandchild Clause and Israel’s family law give different answers to the age-old question “Who is a Jew?” But strictly speaking this is incorrect. The Grandchild Clause doesn’t define those with partial Jewish ancestry as Jews. It extends to them the same right of immigration to Israel and right of citizenship that halakhic Jews have—but, once in Israel, such people are unambiguously not recognized as Jews.

At the time of its passing, the Grandchild Clause was of relatively minor practical significance. Immigration levels were low by the mid-1970s and reached record lows during the 1980s, often thought of as Israel’s “lost decade” of economic stagnation. And although there was a substantial influx of Soviet Jews in the early 1970s, the 165,000 who came during this period were less likely to be intermarried than later arrivals and tended to have a stronger Jewish identity and a stronger commitment to Zionism. The remaining new immigrants during this time mostly came from traditional or religious Jewish communities in North Africa, Ethiopia, Europe, and North America—they were overwhelmingly halakhic Jews who were already covered by the Law of Return. Immigration really only picked back up in the early 1990s, with the post-Soviet aliyah wave that peaked in 1990 and 1991 and remained high until the early 2000s. Immigration from Eastern Europe saw a resurgence again after the Russian incursion into Ukraine in 2014 and has reached mid-90s levels again in 2022 as a result of the full-fledged invasion that year.

These immigrants over the last generation were and have been very different from their 1970s precursors. They have been driven primarily by the social and economic uncertainty brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union, rather than by Zionist fervor or anti-Semitic discrimination. And increasingly, they have also been not halakhically Jewish—and therefore many of them could come to Israel only because they had a Jewish grandparent. While in 1990 about 95 percent of ex-Soviet arrivals were defined as halakhically Jewish, between 1999 and 2009 the majority were defined as Others. In 2020 the share of halakhic Jews among these immigrants was a mere 28.3 percent, a share that has continued through the present day.

The result of this trend is that for the first time since its passing, the Grandchild Clause has been called into widespread use. Because of it, the share of Others has been consistently rising in Israel, even though the group has the highest emigration rate among all demographic groups, and the lowest fertility rate (1.35 as of 2020 according to the Central Statistical Bureau, well below even that of secular Jews). Others presently make up around five percent of Israel’s total population, enough to make them a politically consequential group; they are more numerous than Israel’s Druze and Christian Arab populations taken together. To put it in bluntly electoral terms: if they turned out to vote proportionally to their share in the population, Others of Soviet origin would be numerous enough for six Knesset seats. As we will see in later segments of this essay, this simple fact is crucial to a full understanding of the controversy that surrounds the Grandchild Clause. The controversy isn’t merely about whether the Jewish state should welcome people with partial Jewish ancestry who aren’t halakhically Jewish. It is, tacitly, also about how these people vote and which camp’s vision of Israel they strengthen.


II. How Israelis See the Grandchild Clause


How do these Others define themselves? According to the ex-Soviet Israeli activist Alex Rif, as many as 94 percent of Others consider themselves Jews. Yet their Jewish identity tends to be weaker and to play a less central role in their lives than is true of Israel’s halakhically Jewish population, secular and religious alike. According to a 2022 survey conducted by the Institute of National Security Studies, a relatively large minority of ex-Soviet immigrants assigns little if any importance to their Jewish identity. Still, according to all surveys only a minority of Others see themselves as definitely not Jewish.

But most Israeli Jews don’t see them that way. According to a 2022 survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), only 26 percent of Israeli Jews recognize immigrants with only patrilineal Jewish ancestry as Jews. Even a slight majority of secular Jews, 50 percent vs. 44 percent, decline to recognize patrilineal Jewish ancestry.

This widespread commitment to the halakhic definition of Jewish identity, however, doesn’t automatically translate into opposition to the Grandchild Clause. Surveys on the clause are many, and they paint a mixed mixture. In the IDI’s 2009 Portrait of Israeli Jews, only a minority (42 percent) supported the clause. According to a later Direct Polls survey from May 2022, 34 percent of Israeli Jews supported completely cancelling and another 30 percent “modifying” the Grandchild Clause (presumably in a more restrictive direction). Yet an even more recent poll conducted by the IDI in January of this year showed that only a slight majority—54.4 percent—of Israeli Jews think that cancelling the Grandchild Clause would help preserve Israel’s Jewish majority, while a slight plurality—47.7 vs. 43.7 percent—thought that cancelling the clause would undermine the Zionist ideals of aliyah and the ingathering of the exiles.

In all these polls, there is a clear and unsurprising correlation between level of religiosity and opposition to the Grandchild Clause. Ḥaredim are the least supportive of the clause, while secular Jews are the most supportive, and ex-Soviet immigrants especially supportive. The most obvious objection to the clause is at base rooted in Jewish law: it contravenes the halakhic definition of a Jew, which, in this view, is the only definition relevant to understanding Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Put in more practical terms, the Grandchild Clause strikes the religious as a means for non-Jews to immigrate to Israel en masse, thereby threatening or diluting Israel’s Jewish character. A related concern is fear of intermarriage and “hidden assimilation”: according to the 2023 IDI poll cited above, all Jewish groups other than the secular are opposed to their children marrying non-Jews.

As this statistic suggests, the greatest dividing line according to these surveys is between secular Jews and everyone else. The typical secular attitude to Grandchild Clause immigrants is one of conditional acceptance: they or their children will serve in the army, speak Hebrew, and generally adopt a lifestyle that isn’t substantially different from that of secular Jews. This attitude often comes hand in hand with support for easier conversion to Judaism, which finds 76.5 percent support among secular and 56 percent among traditional Jews who define themselves as “not religious,” and only 35 percent support among more religious groups.

In 2023, the close correlation between level of religiosity and opposition to the Grandchild Clause also means something else: a close correlation between support for or opposition to the present right-religious government. In the IDI survey, coalition voters consistently gave answers indicative of opposition to the Grandchild Clause, while opposition voters consistently gave answers indicative of support for it. The tone in the Knesset was similar: virtually all support expressed for the plan to cancel the clause last year came from members of the coalition, with the opposition being fiercely against such a move. Some individual opposition members are known to be in favor of cancelling the Grandchild Clause, but they have been notably mum during these debates.

This situation suggests a major shift: while the Grandchild Clause has been divisive for a long time, it wasn’t always divisive along partisan lines.

This situation suggests a major shift: while the Grandchild Clause has been divisive for a long time, it wasn’t always divisive along partisan lines. In April 2005, it was none other than center-left leader Tzipi Livni who submitted a bill to cancel the clause. (Livni was in Likud at the time, but she belonged to the left flank that supported the disengagement from Gaza, and half a year later she joined Sharon’s new Kadima party.) Other left-of-center MKs who expressed some level of support for the move included Labor’s Ophir Pines-Paz and Meimad’s Michael Melchior. (Meimad was a small religious center-left party, which for most of its history functioned as a satellite party of Labor.) At the same time, Likud’s Reuven Rivlin—ideologically well to the right of Livni—was fiercely opposed to touching the Law of Return; and ḥaredi MKs such as Aryeh Deri and Moshe Gafni, while opposed to the Grandchild Clause in principle, were much more cautious about their opposition than they are today.

Thus, while the Grandchild Clause’s overall favorability hasn’t changed significantly—support for the clause appears to be somewhat but not much higher today—the controversy has a much more partisan nature to it than two decades ago. If in 2005 there were important voices on the left that supported cancelling the clause, and important voices on the right that supported keeping it, bloc affiliation today is a much stronger predictor of where one stands on the issue.

What explains this partisan shift? One strong possibility is that support for or opposition to the Grandchild Clause is now ultimately related to if not dictated by political self-interest. And this brings us back to the Others and how their voting patterns have shifted between 1990 and today.


III. The Russians Change the Picture


Ever since the great post-Soviet aliyah wave, the so-called “Russian vote”—a term used colloquially to refer to all immigrants from the former USSR, Others included—has been one of the cardinal questions of Israeli politics. Post-Soviet olim and their descendants make up over a million people and around 15 percent of Israel’s “Jews and Others.” They’re a significant constituency whose votes can easily decide elections. In my eyes, there are four periods in the history of the Russian vote: a brief Labor period (1992), an era of right-leaning sectoral parties (1996-2006), full entrenchment in Israel’s right-wing bloc (2009-2019), and a new era since then in which they have been rapidly shifting allegiance to the center-left bloc. (One note: there are few polls on the voting behavior of post-Soviet Others; they are typically treated together with other post-Soviet olim, and their voting patterns can be reasonably presumed to be similar.)

At the time of its onset, the predominantly secular and Ashkenazi center-left establishment welcomed the post-Soviet aliyah wave with great enthusiasm. In 1990, this establishment was in a dire state, unable to win a single election since the Menachem Begin-led Likud won its famous electoral upset in 1977, after almost three decades of uninterrupted Labor rule. When the Soviet aliyah wave arrived, the Labor establishment hoped that it would replenish its secular, European-oriented voter base. And for a brief period, this expectation was borne out. In the 1992 elections, recent immigrants from the USSR mostly backed Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor, so that after a fifteen-year hiatus Labor once again received enough Knesset seats to put together the first center-left government since 1973.

The secular and Ashkenazi center-left establishment welcomed the Russian aliyah wave with great enthusiasm. But that hope was to be short-lived: the Russians quickly turned to the right.

But Labor’s hope was to be short-lived. After Rabin’s murder, his successor Shimon Peres called early elections in 1996 hoping to claim a stronger mandate for continuing the peace process. But Peres narrowly lost to the young and relatively inexperienced Benjamin Netanyahu, who had on his side a new center-right party, Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael b’Aliyah, which represented the interests of Russian speakers.

By 1999, Russian speakers’ parties were ideologically right-leaning, though ex-Soviet immigrants weren’t fully aligned with the right-wing bloc yet, and in the same year’s direct elections, a majority of them still voted for Ehud Barak. Over the 2000s, such parties tended to be regular (if not always reliable) allies of Likud. Yisrael b’Aliyah was itself short-lived; it folded into Likud in 2003. But Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian-speaking Israeli politician originally from Moldova, split from Likud and founded Yisrael Beytenu in 1999, a brand that proved to be much more durable. For more than two decades, Yisrael Beytenu was the party of Israel’s Russian speakers and reflected their demographic power. In 2009, it garnered fifteen seats and became the third largest party in the country, ahead even of a not-yet-defunct Labor.

During the height of the Netanyahu era, between 2009 and 2019, Yisrael Beytenu was a stable fixture of the right-wing bloc, so much so that it ran on a joint slate with Likud in 2013. Still, the party’s platform was eclectic, and ideologically it never fit as seamlessly into the right as its bloc affiliation would suggest. Lieberman advocated for hawkish policies on matters of security and at a certain point even demanded a loyalty oath from Arab citizens of Israel. His peculiar proposal for ending the Israel-Palestinian conflict had Israel not only annexing the major settlement blocs but also ceding sovereign areas from pre-1967 Israel—a trade which would result in a Palestinian state and an Israel with redrawn borders and greater ethnic homogeneity. The plan was often criticized as racist by the left, but it was also anathema in the eyes of the religious right for its break with territorial maximalism.

Another aspect that distinguished Yisrael Beytenu from the rest of the right-wing bloc was its liberal platform on matters of state and religion: support for civil marriage, lifting restrictions on transportation and commerce on the Shabbat, and easier conversion, a matter of significance for Lieberman’s not-halakhically-Jewish voters. This unusual platform truly reflected the political positions of ex-Soviet immigrants: a mixture of antagonism to Arabs, hawkish views on security, and staunch secularism.

The Russian-speaking sector’s secularism meant that Lieberman frequently clashed with the ḥaredi parties, particularly over Israel’s draft exemption for ḥaredi men, a clash which nearly resulted in the fall of the ruling coalition in 2012. In 2019, things started to boil over. Lieberman deemphasized the hawkish aspects of his party’s platform and rebranded himself as a secularist first and foremost. He still endorsed Netanyahu as prime minister, but refused to join his government, once again due to disagreement over the ḥaredi draft exemption. Then, before the snap elections that September, he campaigned for a unity government between Likud and Blue and White that would exclude the ḥaredi parties. By 2020, he spurned Netanyahu altogether, recommending Netanyahu’s centrist rival Benny Gantz as prime minister and agreeing to a minority government that rested on external support from the Arab parties. When in the face of the pandemic, Gantz instead chose to join Netanyahu in a power-sharing coalition, Lieberman refused.

By 2021, Lieberman’s shift was complete: he was fully aligned with the center-left bloc. When that bloc won in elections that year, by successfully luring Naftali Bennett’s now-defunct Yamina to break from the right-wing bloc, he demanded (and received) the Ministry of Finance, signaling his new focus on domestic rather than security issues. Although he never explicitly announced a change of heart on matters of security, foreign policy, and Jewish-Arab relations, his tone on these issues noticeably softened; for example, in 2021 he called for amending the Nation-State Law with an equality clause.

Lieberman’s voters, as well as the broader Russian-speaking sector, have followed the same political journey. According to a survey that was conducted shortly before the 2022 elections, Russian speakers supported the opposition against the right-wing coalition parties by a ratio of around two to one. When it comes to recent and especially not-halakhically-Jewish immigrants, this share is likely a conservative estimate, since the category of Russian speakers also includes pre-1990 veteran immigrants, religious Jews, and traditionalist Jews from the Caucasus and from Central Asian countries who are sociologically often closer to Mizrahi Jews than to Russian and Ukrainian ones. In other words, the immigrants coming today from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus are likely even more skewed toward opposition parties. There is some evidence that during the second half of the 2010s, part of the uptick in aliyah from Russia was due to Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Many of the immigrants during this period were educated, liberal urban professionals who saw in Israel a liberal haven and a refuge from authoritarian repression. As a result, their movement was sometimes dubbed “the Putin aliyah.”

As for Yisrael Beytenu, well, since 2015 it has not been able to repeat its earlier success, and has received between 5 and 8 seats, partly because the next generation of Russian speakers, who grew up in Israel, tend to vote for more mainstream parties, again mostly in the center-left bloc.


IV. The New Dividing Line in Israeli Politics


These shifts in the Russian vote were not incidental. To a certain degree, they reflect ideological changes in that demographic. But much more, they reflect huge changes in Israeli politics and what issues matter most to Israelis. Around 2019 and 2020, it was commonly argued that there was no significant ideological difference between Likud and the so-called “anti-Bibi right”—a category that was meant to include Yisrael Beytenu—and that the main divide in Israel revolved not around ideology but around the controversial persona of Netanyahu. This was already false then and is even more clearly false today. In fact, the logic of Israel’s electoral blocs, of what constitutes right and left in the Jewish state, has changed significantly over the past decade.

Until the mid-2010s, the left-right dichotomy in Israeli politics referred primarily to different views about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the peace process, and security. But debate over such issues has nearly vanished in the last decade. There is broad consensus today that a peace agreement with the Palestinians that would fully settle border and so-called final-status questions is not realistic. Sure, the center-left continues to warn (with varying levels of emphasis) against unfettered settlement growth and against Israel’s increasing entanglement with the Palestinians, but even Meretz’s Yair Golan tends to speak of “separating” from the Palestinians, rather than putting an end to the conflict with a final peace agreement. On the other side, no party left of Religious Zionism is fully and unambiguously committed to the old idea of “Greater Israel”; in 2020, large parts of the Likud-adjacent right welcomed the Trump peace plan and thus agreed to ceding land, at least in principle.

The political trench lines in Israel today have not disappeared as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has receded. Instead, they increasingly follow not the logic of security but the logic of culture war and identity.

Politics abhors a peaceful vacuum, and Israelis need something to fight over, so the political trench lines in Israel today have not disappeared. Instead, they increasingly follow not the logic of security but the logic of culture war and identity. This is probably the most massive shift in Israeli politics in decades, yet it has been little apprehended, especially outside the state. The right-religious bloc—Likud and its religious and ḥaredi allies—sees Israel not merely as a Jewish state but as a state that is first and foremost Jewish—Jewish not only in the sense that it has a Jewish majority and state symbols, but Jewish also in ways that are expressed in its policies, in the character of public spaces, and in its understanding of its own place in the world. Representatives of that bloc profess commitment to Israel as a democracy, but they understand democracy first and foremost in majoritarian terms: if Israel has a Western, liberal character, then the legitimacy of such a character is rooted in the existence of a majority that supports it, and which is free to change its mind and turn Israel into something other than a Western, liberal country.

The parties opposed to the right-religious bloc—with the exception of the Arab parties—also affirm Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state. But this left-secular bloc generally sees Israel as first and foremost a modern Western state and a liberal democracy with a Jewish majority and Jewish cultural characteristics. In the eyes of its adherents, Israel’s identity as a Western-oriented, liberal democracy isn’t contingent on the wishes of a temporary majority; rather, these features are parts of Israel’s DNA no less than being a Jewish state is. In other words, in the Israel of 2023, the greatest dividing line isn’t between hawks and doves, but between Western-oriented liberals and Jewish exceptionalists—or, to put it more simply, between “Israelis” and “Jews.”

In a country split this way, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu firmly belongs to the liberal camp, a stance unlikely to change even in the post-Netanyahu era, whenever that arrives. This distinction manifests itself in several ways that show the difference between Likud and the anti-Bibi right to be about much more than just the identity of the prime minister. For example, in a survey conducted by Israel’s Channel 13 last year, overwhelming majorities of New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu voters supported same-sex marriage, whereas Likud voters were about evenly divided and religious parties overwhelmingly opposed. According to another poll, conducted by HaMadad, Yisrael Beytenu voters were indistinguishable from left-wing voters with respect to their likelihood of having considered emigration in response to the political situation in Israel.

And this brings us to the crux of the controversy over the Grandchild Clause. Before Lieberman broke from the right-wing bloc, the political right’s ideology and its self-interest were in conflict with each other. On the one hand, the Grandchild Clause brought many new immigrants to Israel who weren’t halakhically Jewish. On the other hand, these new immigrants tended to vote for Yisrael Beytenu (or Likud), and thereby strengthened the right-wing bloc. Now the picture is different. There is no other hand, not really. Today, the right-religious bloc’s ideology and its demographic-electoral interests are in full alignment. Most of that bloc’s voters oppose the immigration of Others on principle; and the Others now tend to vote for parties that are opposed to them.


V. A Great-Grandchild Clause?


Does the same go for the left-secular bloc? It does.

The election results in November 2022, the coalition negotiations that followed it, including the provocative demands for religious legislation made by the ḥaredi parties, and above all Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s reform proposal to weaken the judiciary and concentrate more power in the hands of the elected coalition—all these developments were a bitter wake-up call for center-left and liberal Israeli Jews. Pundits and political scientists have been noting for a while that Israel’s rightward shift over the last 50 years has been in part driven by demography, and that the liberal bloc has a built-in demographic disadvantage thanks to the higher fertility rate of religious and ḥaredi Jews, who overwhelmingly support the right. For a long time, however, these demographic processes largely took place under the surface, hidden from ordinary Israeli voters. I can recall many personal conversations, even with well-informed Israelis who follow politics, in which people assumed that sure, the Ḥaredim have more kids, but also plenty of those children end up becoming secular, and it all balances out. In fact, this is very far from the truth: while nearly half of all children born into religious Zionist families indeed become secular or more loosely traditional, ḥaredi Jews (especially Ashkenazi Ḥaredim) remain in their community at very high rates.

Over the past half year or so, however, political demography has suddenly become a mainstream topic in the center-left, and that bloc’s apathy has given way to a deep demographic anxiety—a fear that an insurmountable right-religious majority will form and permanently rule over them. Interestingly, many on the right also seem to believe the same thing. Demographic taunting—“we have more kids, you can give up and admit defeat already now!”—has become a standard, if disturbing, staple of political discourse. Again, such predictions are somewhat overblown, given the just-noted trends in religious Zionist demography, but still, the right-wing bloc’s demographic advantage is real.

Over the past half year or so, political demography has suddenly become a mainstream topic in the center-left, and that bloc’s apathy has given way to a deep demographic anxiety.

No party is as affected by this reality as Yisrael Beytenu. According to the N12 survey made shortly before the 2022 elections, 35 percent of the party’s voters were over 65 years old, which makes it by far the most aged political party, significantly more even than Meretz, whose share of voters over 65 was 27 percent. In last year’s poll of young voters by the same channel, Yisrael Beytenu garnered a meager two mandates, well below the electoral threshold. Lieberman’s efforts in recent years to expand his core base of elderly Russian-speaking voters have largely failed. Add to this the fact that Yisrael Beytenu’s base of ex-Soviet immigrants has a significantly lower fertility rate than native secular Israeli Jews, and it becomes clear that no political force is at such great demographic disadvantage as Yisrael Beytenu and any future Russian-speakers’ party in general.

However, the Grandchild Clause is now vital not only for Lieberman but also for the entire center-left bloc, since it allows the immigration of tens of thousands of potential opposition voters to Israel each year. In an average year (preceding the war in Ukraine), around 25-30,000 immigrants move to Israel, and around 15-20,000 of them are not halakhically Jewish. (Not all of them come via the Grandchild Clause; some of them are non-Jewish spouses and the children of halakhic Jews.) Since there are around 185,000 live births per year in Israel, this means that around 10 percent of Israel’s annual demographic growth comes from the immigration of (overwhelmingly ex-Soviet) Others. This is a very significant component of population growth.

Both sides in the battle for Israel’s fundamental identity are now starting to sense the political-demographic importance of Others, which explains why attitudes to the Grandchild Clause break much more along partisan lines than two decades ago. It is hard to say to what extent this is a result of conscious attitudes and to what extent the instinctive recognition of collective self-interest. Anecdotally, I have often heard Ḥaredim (but not many others in the right-wing bloc) quip that “Russian goyim” are brought to Israel with the express intent to serve as a counterweight to their rapid growth. On the center-left, I have rarely encountered explicitly demographic arguments; most secular liberals simply feel that there is no meaningful difference between halakhically Jewish and other Russian immigrants, and that both have place in the Jewish state. But I have little doubt that at some level they also understand that the Grandchild Clause serves their interests and undermines the rival camp’s.

Lieberman now goes even a step beyond the Grandchild Clause. In October 2022, the war in Ukraine raging, he proposed to amend the Law of Return with a Great-Grandchild Clause, which would have extended the right of immigration and a path to Israel citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish great-grandparent. Lieberman was cautious in his proposal: he argued that such a change is necessary for humanitarian reasons, he didn’t demand automatic citizenship for the great-grandchildren of Jews, and he suggested that the measure be temporary. Even so, the proposal would change Israel radically. Around 600,000 Russian and 200,000 Ukrainian citizens are still eligible to immigrate to Israel through the Law of Return. If this right were extended to anyone with a Jewish great-grandparent, then the number of potential immigrants could potentially be in the millions, considering the high rate of intermarriage in post-Soviet nations. It is difficult to believe that electoral considerations weren’t on Lieberman’s mind when proposing the amendment.

The chances of a Great-Grandchild Clause passing in the near future, even under a center-left government, are not high. Lieberman’s proposal was mostly ignored, though then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid said that it should be discussed by the cabinet and Knesset and not rejected out of hand. The politicians on the right flank of Gantz’s centrist National Unity, especially religious ones, would be strenuously opposed to it. But in the long run, the temptation of demographic engineering will likely be too great to resist, and the center-left will find a way to mitigate the cognitive dissonance between its desire to increase its pool of voters and its continuing commitment to Zionism and Israel as a Jewish state. It can be expected that such a drive will go hand in hand with a vigorous push to redefine who is considered a Jew. Perhaps the liberal camp’s politicians will archaically refer to the potential new immigrants as zera Yisrael (the seed of Israel) in order to emphasize their connection to the Jewish people.

(As an aside, I should note that lenient stances on the status of zera Yisrael , and support for their easier conversion, exists outside Israel’s secular-liberal tribe, but it remains marginal. For example, Haim Amsalem, a Sephardi rabbi and founding member of Shas, is a long-time advocate for very lenient conversion standards for people of patrilineal Jewish ancestry who serve in the IDF, going so far as to argue that their military service itself should be interpreted as “acceptance of the mitzvot.” It is safe to say that Amsalem’s approach won almost exclusively secular admirers, while antagonizing most of the ḥaredi world.)

So, although it is unlikely that the Great-Grandchild Clause will become the official policy of the liberal camp in the near future, a drive of some sort for more permissive immigration policy in general probably will. The minister of the interior has a great amount of wiggle room in executing Israel’s policies toward refugees and naturalization. During the Bennett-Lapid government’s short tenure, Ayelet Shaked, minister of the interior at the time, took a hard line and capped the number of Ukrainian refugees arriving in Israel who weren’t eligible to immigrate via the Law of Return. In a future government, though, one of the center-left parties could demand this ministry and quietly use it to speed up the arrival and naturalization of East European immigrants even without any official legislative change to the Law of Return.


VI. Complicating Factors


For now, though the two new sides in Israeli politics are waking up to their new reality, they are not fully aware of it yet or fully marshaled in their forces. Likewise, the political-demographic sorting of which the Russians are a leading indicator has not fully finished. The center-left bloc isn’t entirely united in its support for the Grandchild Clause; it presently includes some “liberal religious” Jews with hawkish views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict but moderate to liberal views on social issues, who remain firmly committed to the halakhic understanding of Jewish identity. Likewise, the political right, which continues to enjoy the support of a minority of secular Jews, isn’t monolithically opposed to it, either. After all, part of the reason that cancelling the clause was shelved was internal opposition within Likud. It has recently become common to describe the right-religious bloc as ha-gush ha-emuni, or the bloc of the believers. However, while this bloc primarily represents traditional, religious, and ḥaredi Jews, it is still dependent on buy-in from a significant minority of secular voters.

According to the N12 survey mentioned earlier, as of 2022 31.5 percent of Likud and 13.5 percent of Religious Zionism voters defined themselves as secular. (The ḥaredi parties had no measurable support among secular voters.) This means that about twelve of the coalition’s 64 seats came from secular right-wingers who (as of 2022) decided to throw in their lot with the right-religious bloc. Without these voters, the right-wing bloc cannot win elections in Israel today. Incidentally, this is about the number of seats that the coalition would lose if elections were held today, according to recent polls. While some secular voters will always stick with the right-wing bloc no matter what, it is reasonable to assume that they are most of those who have switched sides over the past few months. It is also likely that secular right-wingers are less opposed to the Grandchild Clause than non-secular ones; according to one survey, voters who migrated from Likud to the center-left bloc tend to be more secular. Are there any groups moving left to right under this new dividing line? To my knowledge, none. There’s a general expectation that if a new “liberal right-wing” party appeared, one like Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, it could attract voters from both blocs. But no such party has yet appeared.

Since the two sides are not fully conscious of what is happening, it makes sense that they do not fully understand each other. The Israeli right is afraid that, whether in government or in opposition, the liberal camp is trying to undermine Israel’s Jewish character. The right-wing media frequently describe all of Israel’s center-left as “post-Zionist,” and accuse them of trying to transform Israel into a “state of all of its citizens.” (This phrase may sound unobjectionable in English, but to the ears of Hebrew speakers, it invariably means a non-Jewish state). This is not quite right. Post-Zionism undeniably exists on the political left in Israel, but today it is even more on the margins than it was in the past. Meretz could have been considered a post-Zionist party in 1999, when Zehava Gal-On expressed opposition to the Law of Return in its present form and considered elements of it “racist”; today, not so much. Voices can occasionally also be heard on the right that a center-left government might try to cancel the Law of Return. But of course, a center-left government today is far more likely to do the opposite and attempt to broaden the law and attempt to flood Israel with East European immigrants who now, in Israel’s culture wars, count as “Western.”

My view is that the center-left bloc doesn’t really misunderstand the right in the same way the right misunderstands the left. The center-left certainly says things about the right that aren’t true—“they are all religious fundamentalists”; “they all want dictatorship”—but I think this is some of the oversimplified discourse that is commonplace in today’s political climate, rather than genuine conviction. What the left does misunderstand, to some extent, is itself. The center-left has convinced itself that the anti-judicial reform protests are strictly in support of democracy. It seems clear to me, though, that they really are in support of the state’s liberal-Western character.

Another group liable to being misunderstood, and angry over the matter, is American Jewry, who have already exerted their outside power and surely will again. In Israel, the debate over the Grandchild Clause is seen as primarily revolving around post-Soviet aliyah. But whatever happens to it stands to affect other Diaspora Jews as well. Last year, when the idea of its cancellation was first proposed, Jewish organizations (especially Reform) in North America grew furious. It is important to note that Orthodox Jewry remained largely mum and tacitly supportive on the proposed immigration reform. For them, like for the Israeli religious right, Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state is uncomplicated and essentially tied to the halakhic definition of Jewish identity. As is often the case, the main divide in American Jewry seems between Orthodox Jews and everyone else.

The strong opposition of Reform and liberal Jews to cancelling the clause sometimes seems curious to Israelis, given the low numbers at stake. The number of Americans who would be personally affected by abolishing the clause is miniscule. While over two thirds of immigrants arriving from post-Soviet countries are not halakhically Jewish, between 2010 and 2021 only around 5 percent of all U.S. immigrants to Israel were defined as Others, and only 0.3 percent—a mere 67 people—came through the Grandchild Clause. This isn’t surprising. While most American Jews are non-Orthodox, and non-Orthodox Jews are heavily intermarried, American emigrants to Israel aren’t representative of American Jewry. In 2007, for instance, while Orthodox Jews were only 10 percent of all American Jews, they were 60 percent of American Jews who made aliyah. Reform Jews, around 35 percent of American Jews, were only five percent of all U.S. immigrants in the same year. So, one could be forgiven for thinking that Reform Jews have little stake in the Law of Return one way or other.

The Law of Return is sometimes seen not so much as a particular immigration law passed in a given year by human politicians but as a sign of an unbreakable connection between Jews everywhere and the Jewish state.

But despite negligible practical effects, revising the law would threaten totemic symbols that are foundational to the mostly liberal North American Jewish understanding of what Israel is meant to represent, an understanding shared by many in Israel, like some of the Likudniks who were opposed to the clause’s cancellation. According to this vision, Israel is not just a Jewish state but a safe haven for Jews—a place of refuge for anyone who could be subjected to anti-Semitic persecution due to his or her Jewish ancestry. Few non-Orthodox American Jews are interested in actually immigrating to Israel, but it’s crucial to their vision of the Jewish state that they (and their children and grandchildren) will always have the option if the need arises. On top of this, the clause and the Law of Return more broadly are sometimes seen not so much as particular immigration laws passed in a given year by human politicians but as signs of an unbreakable connection between Jews everywhere and the Jewish state.

The second reason for American Jewish support for the clause is more prosaic: non-Orthodox Jews are far more intermarried than Orthodox ones. Reform Judaism also largely recognizes people of only patrilineal Jewish ancestry as Jews and allows its clergy to officiate mixed marriages. For Reform Jews, then, the push to cancel the Grandchild Clause is yet another reminder that Israel doesn’t recognize their stream of Judaism, and sometimes doesn’t even recognize themselves or their relatives as Jews. The diminished status of Reform and Conservative Judaism already complicates many liberal Jews’ connection to Israel, and it extends to issues ranging from the non-recognition of non-Orthodox conversions and marriage ceremonies performed in Israel to the position of women at the Western Wall. Merely considering elimination of the Grandchild Clause exacerbates these tensions considerably.

The debate over who is a Jew in Israel is likely to repeat itself not only within the U.S., but on a smaller scale also within Israel about American Jewry. Edieal J. Pinker’s recent population projection estimates that due to intermarriage and low fertility, the number of Reform and Conservative Jews in the U.S. will drop from a combined 3.5 to 2.5 million by 2063. It is reasonable to expect that with the passage of time, the gap between the size of the Reform and Conservative Jewish communities as perceived by members of these communities themselves, and their size as perceived by Israel’s religious establishment, will keep growing. Because of the increasing share of Reform and Conservative converts—presently seven percent of 35-to-49-year-olds in those movements—and people of patrilineal Jewish ancestry, there will be a growing population of American Jews that Israel won’t recognize as Jews.

All of this suggests that even with the best intentions, the distance between Israel and American non-Orthodox Jewry on this matter will only grow. Already today, there are 7 or 8 million Americans who aren’t halakhically Jewish but qualify for aliyah via the Grandchild Clause. For now, few of them define themselves as Jews by religion. But within the next half century, as that group grows, there could be hundreds of thousands of people who unambiguously define themselves as Jews by religion but whose Jewish identity will be disputed by Israel’s religious establishment. Scrapping the Grandchild Clause would likely turn the present rift into a complete schism, but keeping the clause isn’t guaranteed to stop, let alone reverse, the process.


VII. Two Visions of Jewish Statehood


When will the fight over the Grandchild Clause begin again in earnest? In some ways, the battle over East European immigration is already taking place. Although the ḥaredi and religious parties gave up on cancelling the Grandchild Clause, at least for now, in April the government scrapped an emergency aliyah track that had been put in place by the Bennett-Lapid government. In June, the Knesset also voted to roll back new immigrants’ entitlement to a passport immediately after arrival and to reinstate the pre-2017 situation, when Israeli citizenship was granted immediately but passports were given out after a one-year residency requirement. (The more recent law was passed thanks to pressure by no other than Lieberman, who argued that the residency requirement discriminated against new immigrants.)

And in a deeper way, this battle has been present in Zionism since its very beginning. It can be seen not just in the differences between thinkers like Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, but within the writings of almost every great Zionist thinker. This tension, inherent in the Jewish national movement in a way that the conflict with the Palestinians never could be, now once again finds its expression in the Israeli political and cultural divide.

The religious right believes in a state that is at its core first and foremost Jewish—a majoritarian democracy that can freely decide to adopt or shun liberal values according to its interests and the wishes of its ever-changing voters. This vision taps into millennia of Jewish history and sees a country that is thoroughly exceptional because it is Jewish. By contrast, the liberal camp’s Israel is (mostly but not entirely) built on the Herzlian idea of Jewish normalcy; it is, in, the Zionist poet Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik’s words, a country with Jewish thieves and prostitutes and a Jewish police force. It is a thoroughly modern, normal country, which is just like any other country except that it is Jewish.

The religious right believes in a state that is at its core first and foremost Jewish. By contrast, the liberal camp’s Israel is built on the Herzlian idea of Jewish normalcy.

These starkly contrasting visions have straightforward consequences for immigration policy. The religious right will want to stem the arrival in Israel of people who, according to Jewish law, are not Jewish and who therefore will complicate the essential Jewish qualities of the nation—and who will also vote for their opponents. They are frustrated that their camp cannot translate its growing demographic weight into policy; whether by the Supreme Court or by other unelected institutions, the right feels (with some justification, albeit often to an exaggerated extent) that the center-left continues to set Israel’s agenda despite usually losing elections. Yariv Levin’s drive to remake the justice system partly stems from this feeling of frustration and dispossession; so does the incipient desire to ensure that as few secularists as possible arrive in the country. The liberal camp, on the other hand, will want to facilitate the immigration of more people like themselves, in part because they see them as natural companions in their version of the Zionist dream, and in part because they would help compensate for their camp’s demographic disadvantage. The North American Diaspora will mostly follow this battle from the sidelines, with Orthodox Jews cheering for the right, and most of everyone else for the center-left.

Throughout this essay, I have claimed that the main divide in Israeli society has to do with identity rather than security, and that the two camps give different answers to the question “Who are we?” Most supporters of the right-religious bloc have a straightforward answer to this question: we are Jews. We can peacefully live together with anyone else who accepts Israel as a Jewish state, although not in numbers that would threaten a robust Jewish majority. However, such people will always be considered “strangers and sojourners” rather than full members of our tribe.

Supporters of the center-left bloc tend to have a different and more ambiguous answer to the question of who we are. On the one hand, typically when center-left politicians (and the protest movement’s leaders) speak in the first-person plural mode, they speak of us, Israelis, rather than us, Jews. On the other hand, the protest movement’s re-appropriation of Zionist symbolism (the flag, the Declaration of Independence, and HaTikvah), its frequent references to Jewish history, and its celebration of army duty as a core component of Israeli-Jewish identity were not just PR measures but sincere expressions of their worldview.

This worldview was perhaps most aptly expressed by Nadav Argaman, director of the Shin Bet between 2016 and 2021, who quipped that Israel belongs “to everyone who bears the burden.” In practice this means first and foremost the secular Jewish middle class, which bears most of the tax burden and participates in army service; they are the “best Israelis”, the model citizens that others ought to emulate. According to this view, any citizen can be a good Israeli as long as he accepts Israel as a Western liberal democracy with Jewish cultural characteristics, though for some groups—for example Israeli Arabs, Ḥaredim, and “Ḥardalim,” i.e. Torah-oriented nationalists—such acceptance will typically be much harder than for others, such as the liberal religious, the Druze, and also the ex-Soviet Others. In short, then, the slowly crystallizing, implicit ideology that is now getting a foothold in Israel’s liberal camp is neither Zionism as the religious right understands it nor post-Zionism, but rather, a kind of post-ethnic Israeli civic nationalism. We are those who bear the burden and sustain the state—mostly Jews, but not all Jews and not only Jews.

The conflict between these competing identities and the accompanying visions is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, if ever. In the meantime, the Law of Return and the Grandchild Clause will be at its center, serving as the policy locus for a fundamental debate over Israel’s soul. While the ḥaredi and religious parties have given up for now on cancelling the Grandchild Clause, the war over the Law of Return is not only far from over, it is just about to begin.