Skip links

Israel and the Diaspora: Discussion Around Amendments to the Law of Return

Last week, Maariv published a column by EAJC Director General Dr. Haim Ben Yaakov in response to a comment by Israeli journalist and TV presenter Sivan Rav Meir. Its translation into English provided below.

The Law of Return was unanimously approved by the Israeli Knesset about 71 years ago. It guaranteed the right of every Jewish person, wherever they may be, to repatriate to Israel. The debate around the Law and its changes is an interesting example of the influence and interaction of the three branches of government in Israel in an attempt to shape the Jewish and democratic character of the state in accordance with changing trends. This process also reflects an intense debate over one of the central questions in Israeli society – what does it mean to be Jewish? In other words, what is the essence of the Jewish identity in Israel and the Diaspora, and how does this relate to the changing reality.

The wide range of opinions about this law is an expression of the differing views of the Israelis on such fundamental issues as the place of the religion in the modern state, attitudes towards mixed marriages and various currents of Judaism. Sivan Rav Meir, a well-known Israeli journalist, recently stated that the majority of immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not Jews, “When the state was created, the percentage of Jews was 82.1%. This year, Jews make up to 73.9% of Israel’s population. This dramatic demographic change has received little attention, perhaps because it is not politically correct to state the following: The Law of Return must change.”

In view of such statements, we should ask ourselves a number of difficult questions, starting with whether the political and ideological situation in Israel now allows to amend the Law of Return, which is of key importance for Israel and the Diaspora and relations between them? And will these changes to such an important law benefit or harm returnees and Jewish communities around the world?

The 90’s huge wave of Aliya from the former Soviet Union has undoubtedly brought new motives to Israel’s discussion of the Law. Secular and religious circles have expressed concerns about the increase in the number of new immigrants from mixed families, often far from Jewish culture and Judaism.

However, despite heated debate, no changes have been made to the Law of Return since the 1970s to the present. Opinion makers and leaders of various Jewish organizations have been actively involved in discussions of the law, as it has a significant impact on the deepest processes taking place in Israeli society and in Jewish communities around the world. And this is quite symbolic!

Although the Law of Return only regulates the right to immigration and the acquisition of Israeli citizenship, apparently this law affects much deeper issues in the communities outside the Jewish state. It shapes the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel, highlighting the character of the State of Israel as a national home for Jews around the world, which has been one of the biggest dreams and goals of the Zionist movement from its very beginning. Of course, public and political debate on this issue is critical for Israeli society and the discussion should continue. However, destructive, often unsubstantiated, out-of-context statements and attacks directed at a major part of Israeli society and Jewish communities in the diaspora must stop. The dialogue around the Law of Return must be conducted in a respectful and dignified manner, without infringing on the individual rights and dignity of returnees.