Reforms to the Law of Return Are Not an Attack on American Jewry

December 22, 2022 | Eugene Kontorovich
About the author: Eugene Kontorovich is a professor at George Mason University Antonin Scalia School of Law, director of its Center for International Law in the Middle East, and a scholar at the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.

On the agenda of the new Knesset, which will first convene on Monday, is a bill to narrow the scope of the Law of Return, which at present guarantees citizenship to anyone with a single Jewish grandparent. Opponents of the reforms in both Israel and the U.S. have condemned the proposed changes in harsh terms, and claimed that it will drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora. Eugene Kontorovich argues that the facts do not support such assertions:

[The] original law of return was adopted in 1950 and is part of Israel’s foundational principles. It allowed anyone who is Jewish or has a Jewish parent to receive citizenship upon immigration. In 1970 that law was broadened to include people with only one Jewish grandparent, regardless of whether they were considered Jews under Jewish religious law, and it is that amendment that is being debated. Critics of the reform . . . are relying on several misrepresentations about the proposal.

The first myth is that the amendment would change Israel’s definition of who is a Jew, disqualifying people currently considered as such under Israeli law. This is simply not true: the grandparent clause does not relate to the question of “who is a Jew,” the status of Reform conversions, or other sensitive topics. That is because the 1970 amendment does not define the patrilineal grandchildren of Jews as “Jews,” but rather specifically as non-Jews who are nevertheless included in the Law of Return. The amendment made no change to determinations of status, nor would its removal.

A second myth is that the amendment would be an insult to American Jews, or dampen American aliyah. . . . Tens of thousands of Jews have made aliyah from the U.S. in the past decade—and only 67 of them did so under the grandparent clause, according to new research by my colleague Netanel Fisher. Many of those 67 would have been independently eligible for citizenship through other family ties.

The proposed amendment is motivated largely by immigration from Eastern Europe. . . . Today, the law is principally used by people from the former Soviet Union. Close to three-quarters of recent immigrants from these countries are not Jewish. The result of this in recent decades has been significant growth in a population in Israel that not only is not halachically Jewish, but much of which does not regard itself as Jewish. Indeed, some of them are practicing Christians.

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