The essay “The Looming War over Israel’s Law of Return” paints a disquieting picture of the Jewish state being plunged into a struggle between “Jews” and “Israelis.” The author, Rafi DeMogge, predicts that the current political and cultural controversy over judicial reform is but the first phase of this fight. In his opinion, the next phase will ensue from an attempt to change the Grandchild Clause in the Law of Return. This coming round of conflict can be expected to be even fiercer than the present one, and could tear asunder the fabric of the Israeli, and Jewish, people.
I disagree entirely with this analysis, for two primary reasons.
My quarrel isn’t only with the evaluation of the current reality; I admit that DeMogge’s sociological analysis might well include accurate observations. Even if I am inclined to agree with the objections raised by Ofir Haivri and Yehoshua Pfeffer in their responses, that certainly doesn’t mean that there isn’t much else that the essay gets right. Yet my main concern with articles such as this one is that they can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, helping to create the reality they predict.
Imagine a man and a woman seeing a couples’ therapist who continuously points out the differences between them in outlook and character. The therapist’s goal is to shine a light on these differences in order to help the couple bridge them, but the result might instead be to convince both husband and wife that they are incompatible. Such an approach, however well intended, can be equally detrimental to Israel.
Without a doubt, there are deep divisions within Israeli society, and within the Jewish people. Such was the case in the past and so it is today. What is needed are not reminders of these conflicts, but responsible leaders who will seek ways to overcome them. In other words, differing senses of national identity indeed cause rifts like those DeMogge describes, but a much greater source of strife is the lack of leaders who strive for compromise and constructive dialogue.
My second objection to the essay flows directly from the first. It is very easy to incite conflict over the question of who is a Jew. This is a question that stirs Israelis’ and Jews’ deepest emotions. But when looked at dispassionately, the practical problems are far less insurmountable than one might imagine.
Even if the Law of Return is amended, it won’t suddenly become a religious dictum, nor will amending the law pave the way for Israel becoming a halakhic state. The suggested amendment revoking the Grandchild Clause—as DeMogge himself points out—doesn’t in fact define who is a Jew, nor does it concern conversion to Judaism. I have no doubt that even if the law is amended, non-Orthodox conversions will still be recognized for the purpose of the Law of Return, as has been the case for the past 30 years. So too, if the Grandchild Clause is repealed, non-Jewish family members of Diaspora Jews will continue to immigrate to Israel, and mixed families won’t be torn asunder.
What then is at stake? The state of Israel has changed a great deal in recent years, and these changes have also affected the character of immigration (aliyah). Israel has become one of the most developed countries in the world, and therefore an attractive destination of international migration. Thus, in the first decades of the country’s existence, the vast majority of those who settled in Israel were Jews who came to Israel in order to realize the dream of living in a Jewish state. Now, by contrast, most of the immigrants—and especially those from less-developed countries—are non-Jews. Out of every ten emigrants from Russia, for instance, seven or eight are non-Jews. In the last year alone, as a result of the deteriorating situation in Russia, some 50,000 non-Jews arrived in Israel—the equivalent of the population of a mid-sized city such as Tiberias, Eilat, or Nes Ziona. Does such a situation not merit some reconsideration of the present laws?
A portion of these tens of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants are close family members of Jews. But a fair number of them have only a tenuous connection to the Jewish people: grandchildren and great-grandchildren (fourth generation) of Jews, non-Jewish children from previous marriages, parents of non-Jewish spouses, spouses of grandchildren, and so forth. In 1970, when the Grandchild Clause was added to the Law of Return, did its authors really have such a radical expansion of immigration in mind?
It’s also important to understand that, in contrast to most of the world’s countries, those who come to Israel under the Law of Return receive immediate citizenship. As soon as they set foot in Ben-Gurion airport, they receive ID cards, are entitled to full social benefits, and are able to vote in elections. In the U.S., does a family member of a citizen become naturalized immediately upon arrival at JFK? Of course not. In the U.S., as in most countries, an immigrant is required to demonstrate minimal knowledge of the local language and culture in order to be eligible for citizenship. He or she must also spend some time in the country before applying, and can only become a citizen after going through a complicated process. Why doesn’t Israel have the right to consider adopting similar policies?
Unfortunately, it has become clear that many of the recent immigrants don’t intend to remain in Israel at all. They come to Israel, get their passports, and go back to their country of origin or move on to a third one. It is fair to assume that if and when Israel gets a U.S. visa waiver, this phenomenon will likely become much more widespread—as an Israeli passport will be a useful tool for entering the United State easily. Surely the Jewish state has a duty at least to consider this sort of abuse of its immigration system.
And that’s not all. Israel’s current policy should be discomfiting even to liberals. Why should it be that the non-Jewish spouse of a non-Jew who makes aliyah via the Law of Return receives citizenship immediately upon arriving in Tel Aviv, while the foreign non-Jewish spouse of an Israeli-born citizen, who pays taxes and serves in the army, must wait five years? How can this sort of inequality be justified from a liberal perspective?
I’m not naïve. I understand very well that arguments such as those I’ve just offered ignore the background and context of the question at hand. The debate over the Grandchild Clause isn’t a theoretical academic exercise about finding the ideal immigration policy. Especially in this moment of heightened tensions, any discussion of amending the Law of Return is apt to arouse mistrust and even hostility—above all between American Jewish liberals and Israeli conservatives.
The liberals fear an Israeli rejection of the legitimacy of the non-Orthodox denominations. They can complain, with every justification, that Israel seeks political support from American Jewry while not recognizing the complexities of Jewish life in the U.S., complexities which quite often includes intermarriage and family ties between Jews and non-Jews. Merely by putting the details of the Law of Return up for debate, Israelis risk damaging their relations with American Jewry, which are already not at their best.
Israeli conservatives, for their part, simply don’t understand why their brethren across the ocean don’t seem to appreciate that Israel has become an attractive destination for migrants, and aren’t more sympathetic to their concerns that some will exploit Israeli immigration laws in bad faith.
All this brings us back to the issue of responsible leadership, which recognizes the differences between the two sides and seeks to bridge them. As opposed to the above mentioned therapist who only succeeds in highlighting the differences between husband and wife, a responsible leader tries to conduct a dialogue that establishes the redlines of both sides, and then to work out a compromise that does not cross them.
The debate over the Law of Return can indeed lead to crisis and turmoil. Yet I think, and hope, that the brief explanation I sketched out here shows that the differences between the two sides are not so great. Israel needs to understand better the circumstances of Diaspora Jewry, and Diaspora Jewry must for its part better understand Israel’s immigration challenges. If so, it is possible to have a fruitful dialogue and work out mutually acceptable solutions.
I’d like to conclude by presenting a more personal perspective. For many years I’ve been involved in assisting in the conversion to Judaism of non-Jewish immigrants. Every Shabbat, my family and I have had the privilege of hosting in our home people from zera Yisrael—those with Jewish ancestry who are not halakhically Jewish. We have been blessed to meet many wonderful people who wanted to be part of the Jewish people and of Israeli society and have tried to do our best in accompanying them through the conversion process. At the same time, I have to admit that many others had no interest whatsoever in conversion, nor in integrating into Israeli society.
As a democratic state, it is our duty to respect the choices of every citizen. But as a sovereign state, we also have a duty to consider carefully how, and to whom, we open the gates of our country. How do we reconcile our commitment to every Jew with our responsibility to create rational and fair immigration policies? How do we, who live in Israel, protect our country’s interests as we understand them, while at the same time fulfilling our obligations to the Jews of the Diaspora? These are not easy questions, but I believe nonetheless that through honest dialogue we can find answers to them.
At the moment we find ourselves in the midst of an unstable and difficult period, and we, Israeli and Diaspora Jews alike, all pray that tensions subside and that Israeli society reaches compromises that have broad popular support. To that end we must avoid adding fuel to the fire. Everyone must make an effort to understand better, and to appreciate, the perspectives and positions of his political opponents. Difficult though that might seem, it is far from impossible. It is our responsibility to do so, and I am certain that the Israeli nation—and the Jewish people as a whole—are up to the task.
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