Potential changes to the Law of Return: an explainer

Netanyahu has reportedly committed to adjusting the Law of Return, though he has publicly said scrapping the ‘grandfather clause’ isn’t an option.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

Hebrew-language media reported Thursday that Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu has walked back a recent promise he had made not to alter the Law of Return, as part of a coalition agreement with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties.

The proposition to change the law has roiled Israeli politicians, including those within Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Prominent Netanyahu ally Yuli Edelstein spoke out against any proposed changes, saying that adjusting the law was a slippery slope that could lead to the policy’s demise.

On the other hand, former Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana of the National Unity party, who clashed heavily with ultra-Orthodox politicians during his time in office, said changes to the law are necessary.

Here’s a breakdown of what the law actually says, what changes are being proposed, and how they could potentially effect immigration to Israel.

What is the Law of Return?

The Law of Return is a policy granting Israeli citizenship and residency rights to Jews and those with Jewish heritage, as well as their family members. People who apply to live in Israel according to the Law of Return receive a benefits package upon arrival in the country, which includes cash aid, housing assistance, language classes, discounts on municipal taxes, and more.

The policy defines a Jew as a person who was born to a Jewish mother or who formally converted to Judaism. For non-Jewish foreigners who converted in Israel, only an Orthodox conversion administered by the Rabbinate will be recognized for citizenship purposes. Reform or Conservative conversion done abroad do qualify a person for Israeli citizenship.

Why do some politicians want to change the law?

Israeli politicians have focused on the “grandfather clause” within the Law of Return, which recognizes third-generation Jewish roots as sufficient for Israeli citizenship. This means that a person who has one Jewish grandparent, but who is not considered Jewish under Jewish law, can immigrate to Israel and claim citizenship. The clause also states that the spouse of this person is entitled to citizenship and residency as well.

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The ultra-Orthodox parties have proposed that the grandfather clause be scrapped, which would mean that only those with Jewish mothers and fathers qualify for the streamlined path for Israeli citizenship.

In a separate context, Israel does offer citizenship via naturalization for non-Jews, a years-long process similar to the U.S.’s that grants rights to people married to citizens.

“The Law of Return was drafted in days when Israel was a poor and persecuted country, and almost nobody imagined that many would immigrate to it for economic reasons,” MK Shlomo Karhi of the Likud party wrote on Twitter, explaining his support for the clause to be abolished.

Karhi noted that exploitation of the law is relatively common, as each year thousands of new immigrants obtain an Israeli passport – which provides them with visa-free travel to Europe and numerous other countries around the globe – and a generous financial aid package, and then leave Israel within a few months of their arrival.

“Forty-one percent of immigrants this past year received a passport and benefits and returned to their home countries. This is not only a waste of public money, it is an existential threat to the future of the Jewish nation in this country,” he noted. “It’s time to fix [this], before the damage is irreversible.”

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Critics of the law also cite cultural concerns as a reason that the law should be scrapped. Many of those who come to Israel under the grandfather clause have a tenuous connection with Judaism and may be actively practicing another religion. An influx of economically motivated immigrants with little familiarity with Judaism could fundamentally change the fabric of life and society in the world’s only Jewish state, advocates for changing the law say.

How would a change affect immigration?

A recent report from a leading Israeli demographer found that 10 million people who are not Jewish would theoretically qualify for Israeli citizenship as it stands now. Removing the grandfather clause would significantly reduce that number.

Abolishing the clause would disproportionately affect immigration from particular regions of the world.

99 percent of immigrants to Israel from the U.S. are Jewish, immigration expert Dr. Netanel Fisher told the Jerusalem Post. According to his analysis, out of the 120,000 Americans who have obtained Israeli citizenship since the establishment of the state, just 67 did so by using the grandfather clause.

However, 70 percent of immigrants from former Soviet bloc countries in eastern Europe who immigrated to Israel in the last decade are not Jewish, nor the first-degree relatives of Jews, and the majority of them used the grandfather clause to claim Israeli citizenship.

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Professor Eugene Kontorovich, an expert in Israeli law, pushed back against comments from American Jewish organizations warning that adjusting the law would alienate diaspora Jewry.

“To say that Israel may not amend this law is to say it cannot control its borders. It is simply unrealistic for an immigration policy adopted over a half-century ago to not need tweaking as migration and demographic patterns change,” he wrote in a blog for Times of Israel.

Arguing that the clause must be scrapped, Kontorovich wrote that “the practical effect of the provision is to give citizenship rights to a large group of people with no connection to Judaism.”

Will Netanyahu change the law?

It’s still unclear whether Netanyahu will commit to repealing the grandfather clause. According to recent Hebrew-language reports, he has now agreed to bring the issue for a vote in the Knesset by the end of March 2023.

However, earlier reports indicated that Netanyahu was willing to form a Knesset committee that would study the matter, including the problem of people immigrating for cash and a passport and then leaving the country. The committee’s findings and recommendations would be used towards formulating an appropriate legislative response.

In recent days, Netanyahu has been ironclad about his refusal to make changes to the law, telling NBC News that it simply isn’t an option on the table.

“I doubt we’ll have any changes” to the law, Netanyahu said, though he acknowledged he expected a “big debate” over the issue in the Knesset within the next few months.