The Grandchild Clause’s Seeds of Compromise

An arrangement involving eliminating the Grandparent Clause but recognizing patrilineal descent for purposes of the Law of Return just might be feasible.

Pnina Tamano-Shata, Israel’s Minister of Immigration and Absorption, and Yaakov Hagoel, head of the World Zionist Organization, hand out Israeli flags to immigrants from Ukraine at Ben-Gurion Airport in Lod on February 20, 2022. JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.
Pnina Tamano-Shata, Israel’s Minister of Immigration and Absorption, and Yaakov Hagoel, head of the World Zionist Organization, hand out Israeli flags to immigrants from Ukraine at Ben-Gurion Airport in Lod on February 20, 2022. JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.
July 20 2023
About the author

Yehoshua Pfeffer, a rabbi and rabbinical judge, holds a law degree from the Hebrew University and clerked at the Israel Supreme Court. He has taught at a number of yeshivas, published widely on Jewish law and thought, and is currently directing programs for the haredi community in Israel for the Tikvah Fund.

In “The Looming War Over Israel’s Law of Return,” Rafi DeMogge writes that Israel’s “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.”

Identifying starkly contrasting visions for Israel with significant consequences for immigration policy, DeMogge concludes that the decades-old conflict between Jewish and Israeli identity is “unlikely to be resolved anytime soon,” and that the Grandchild Clause—a 1970 proviso to the Law of Return granting anybody with at least one Jewish grandparent the right to Israeli citizenship—“will be at its center.” Through a careful examination of demographic and political trends, he paints a sobering, and all-too-credible, picture of an ever-more fractured Israel.

In this short response, I wish to argue that the outlook isn’t quite so dire as DeMogge suggests. Although Israel’s Jews are indeed divided over the question of Jewish-versus-Israeli identity, this division does not give rise to “starkly contrasting visions for Israel.” The problem, in my view, lies elsewhere: in those using positions of power and influence to undermine social compromise in favor of extreme and polarizing positions. I’ll begin by looking at the rifts in Israeli society.


In a radio interview given a couple of decades ago, the late playwright-turned-politician Yosef “Tommy” Lapid—father of the current opposition leader Yair Lapid—expressed his disappointment with Israel’s secular population. “Twenty percent of Jewish Israelis are secular,” he explained, “20 percent are Orthodox, and 60 percent are Orthodox but non-observant.”

Pressed by the interviewer over this unusual categorization, Lapid clarified that if you find a person relaxing on the beach on Saturday and ask him why he’s there—surely it’s Shabbat today?—only a small fraction will give the straightforward answer that for a secular Jew Shabbat is religiously meaningless. Most will rationalize and justify their presence. Some will say, “This is my way of resting.” Others will explain that the Torah only meant that we mustn’t work on Shabbat, or that “the interpretation changes with the times.”

“Where,” concluded Lapid, “are the good old secular Jews who simply couldn’t care less and don’t know the difference between Saturday and Sunday?”

Though I can’t comment on the numbers, I broadly agree with Lapid’s assessment. As Ofir Haivry noted in his response, a 2016 Pew survey found that 87 percent of secular Jews (then 50 percent, and today some 45 percent, of Israel’s Jewish population) attend a Passover seder every year, and 53 percent said they light Shabbat candles at least sometimes. Even concerning the contentious issue of who we define as bona-fide Jews, a 2022 survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute found that among secular Jews only 44 percent recognize patrilineal Jewish ancestry. Most follow the traditional halakhic position that to be born a Jew requires having a Jewish mother.

It is true (based on the above Pew survey) that most secular Jews (60 percent) place their Israeli identity ahead of their Jewish identity. Yet this is a far cry from the radicalism of figures like the leftwing journalist Uri Avnery, who rejected the very idea of Jewish nationality, calling himself only an Israeli. Prioritizing the Israeli identity does not negate the Jewish one.

Lapid’s demographic appraisal, assuming that it isn’t too far off the mark, is a useful springboard for disagreeing with Rafi DeMogge’s argument. The Grandchild Clause is, indeed, an issue worthy of dispute; it will be hotly debated. Yet with a little effort, a workable compromise can be reached. The Israeli people are certainly capable of doing so; I believe even their political representatives are as well.


DeMogge’s argument, however, isn’t only about the Grandchild Clause, but also about the nature of Israel’s current political landscape. In his view, the clause stands to garner significant support from the political center-left, which will surely realize that it will increase the proportion center-left voters in the population. This is true. Yet, while political expedience is a factor in everyday decision-making, it is far from being the only factor. In fact, a large body of political-science research indicates that in making significant decisions, self-interest is not commonly the dominant consideration. Core values are likely to be far more important. In terms of core values, the differences between rival factions within Israeli society do not seem to justify the social unrest that DeMogge fears over the Grandchild Clause.

As percentages of non-Jews entering Israel under the Grandchild Clause spike, it is only natural that religious and traditional Jews in Israel will begin to feel acute discomfort over the Clause—not because they fear the voting patterns of these newcomers and their children, but out of concern over an erosion of Israel’s Jewish majority generally, and potential intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews specifically. Secular Jews, of course, will feel relatively little or no discomfort at all. As far as they are concerned, let halakhic non-Jews come, provided they become good Israeli citizens. Yet the positions are not so far apart as they seem.

On the one hand, even traditional and observant Israelis do not consider people without Jewish mothers but of Jewish descent to be completely detached from the Jewish nation. While not halakhically Jewish, they are considered zera yisrael (“offspring of Israel”), and there is a religious duty to draw such individuals close. To cite Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, among the leading ḥaredi religious authorities of recent years, “of course, we need to draw them close and not to distance them, for they are from zera yisrael, as Naḥmanides writes in his letters.” Though they are not formally Jewish, inviting them into the country conforms with the outlook of many Ḥaredim, and even more so that of many of the non-ḥaredi Orthodox.

On the other hand, even secular Israelis—including a good part of Lapid’s twenty-percent hardcore secularists—appreciate the significance of basic Jewish identity. Just last week, an Israeli twitterstorm erupted after a news outlet revealed that the right-wing journalist Arnon Segal had stipulated that his altruistic kidney donation should go to a Jew rather than a non-Jew. While the wisdom of making such public declarations can be called into question, it was only the decidedly extreme—such as the former Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On—who condemned Segal’s decision. The great majority recognized both the nobility of donating a kidney and the moral logic of prioritizing one’s own people, even if many might have preferred that he made his kidney available to whoever needed it the most.

To be sure, there are major differences of values and worldview among the various sectors of Israeli society, and many of those differences can be chalked up to the Jewish-vs.-Israeli divide that DeMogge discusses. I am nonetheless optimistic that a worthy compromise—perhaps eliminating the Grandparent Clause but recognizing patrilineal descent for purposes of the Law of Return—will be feasible.

The problem lies at the extremes.


In observing Israel’s social and political turmoil over the past few months, I’ve come to realize that the greatest divide is not between left and right, secular and religious, or liberal and conservative, but between extreme and moderate. This isn’t to belittle the importance of ideology; on the contrary, good ideas are of paramount importance for a thriving society, and bad ideas can do tremendous damage. But ideas, like seeds, can only flourish in the proper soil. They require dignity and mutual respect, the cultivation of cooperation and compromise, and the ability to listen and to consider opposing opinions.

Absent such an environment, all ideas can turn to poison, and any attempt to put them into practice can stir vicious conflict. To take some examples from the past week: freedom of speech might be a good idea, but it isn’t when it legitimizes burning the Torah outside the Israeli embassy in Sweden as an expression of protest. Likewise, respect for human rights is among the highest goods, but becomes destructive when manipulated to deny a country the capacity to secure its borders against illegal immigration—as Israel’s Supreme Court demonstrated last week in striking down (for the fifth time!) an immigration-related piece of legislation.

More generally, empathy is a great virtue, but it can do infinite harm when wielded by social-justice warriors seeking to demolish the basic building blocks of a functioning society. Judicial reform in Israel is a good idea, probably a necessary one, but the attempt to achieve it through such radical measures as the override clause casts a shadow over the entire enterprise. Protests and demonstrations too have an important role to play in a democracy, but when they include refusal to report for reserve duty, they threaten to undermine the basic integrity of Israeli society.

Political polarization is an international ailment that has infected Israel. Nobody, it seems, is immune to the disease. In this context, perhaps DeMogge is right: the Grandchild Clause might provide us with something to fight about. Yet, from my modest experience of Israeli and U.S. cultures, I am optimistic that in the case of Israel the malaise is superficial. Waters of healing from the infinite wellspring of our national spirit—a spirit alive and well and capable of bringing Israelis together—are waiting to be drawn, and all we need is for enough of us to pull the rope.

If only we do, I don’t anticipate the matter of the Grandchild Clause becoming a major issue. We’ve come through much worse.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli politics, Law of Return