In Israel’s Top Court, a Test Case for the Rights of Patrilineal Jews

Widows and widowers of those born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers are being denied the immigration rights afforded to those who were married to matrilineal Jews — and it could have consequences for American Jews

Immigrants from France arrive in Israel, June 21, 2018.
JACK GUEZ / AFP

In the latest twist in the “Who is a Jew?” debate, Israel’s High Court of Justice was asked on Wednesday to weigh in on a rather fine point: Does the state owe the same rights and benefits to widows and widowers of patrilineal Jews as it does to widows and widowers of matrilineal Jews?

It is more than just an esoteric question, considering that over the past two years at least four non-Jewish widows and widowers of patrilineal Jews (the offspring of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers) were denied the right to move to Israel and receive all the benefits awarded to immigrants. They were told they lost that right once their spouses died. 

By contrast, non-Jewish widows and widowers of matrilineal Jews (the offspring of Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers) enjoy this right whether their spouses are dead or alive, and it has never been called into question.

According to Jewish religious law, or halakha, only the offspring of Jewish mothers are considered Jewish. However, the Law of Return — which determines eligibility for aliyah — applies to a much larger population. According to this law, the wife, children and grandchildren of a halakhic Jew are all eligible for aliyah, no matter their own halakhic status.

In the case heard in the High Court on Wednesday, a woman from Ukraine, whose husband was a patrilineal Jew and had recently died, was challenging the Interior Ministry's decision to deny her the right to make aliyah.

In its response to her application, the Interior Ministry said that only non-Jewish widows of matrilineal Jews enjoy this right, and that it does not apply to non-Jewish widows of patrilineal Jews, like her.

The petitioner and her late husband had four children, three of whom live in Israel and have completed their military service. The Interior Ministry recommended that she apply either for a work visa or a special visa granted to non-Jewish parents of Israeli soldiers and army veterans, which allows them entry into the country and the right to extended stay. Such visas, however, would not provide her with free health care, housing assistance, Hebrew lessons and other benefits that are standard for immigrants.

The patrilineal question carries significance beyond these individual cases because, in the United States and the former Soviet bloc, for example, patrilineal Jews are widely embraced by the Jewish community.

The Reform movement — the largest Jewish movement in the United States — does not differentiate between patrilineal and matrilineal Jews. And in the former Soviet Union, it was customary for the ethnicity of an individual to be determined by that of the father rather than the mother, making patrilineal Jews more likely to identify as Jewish than their matrilineal counterparts. In recent years, former Soviet bloc countries have been the main source of aliyah to Israel.

The petitioner is being represented in court by the Israel Religious Action Center — the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel. The petition was also served on behalf of Global Aliyah, an organization that provides financial and other assistance to individuals interested in exercising their right to immigrate to Israel.

“For years, we’ve been interpreting the Law of Return to include the non-Jewish widows of patrilineal Jews, and there was never a problem before,” said attorney Nicole Maor, director of IRAC’s Legal Aid Center for Olim, who submitted the petition on behalf of the Ukrainian woman in March.

Several other similar cases, Maor said, are pending decision in the courts. A request to combine all of them was rejected by the court.

No further hearings are scheduled for the case, and a ruling is expected in the next few weeks. IRAC’s filings to the court include a letter from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, warning of the dire consequences of a ruling in favor of the Interior Ministry.

“If individual people born to Jewish fathers see themselves as Jews and are accepted as Jewish by the Jewish community in their own country, I believe their spouses and children unequivocally fit the intended definition of family members entitled to make aliyah under the Law of Return — regardless of whether the Jewish person is alive or deceased,” he wrote.

“A change in the interpretation of the Law of Return, which includes widows of Jews but excludes widows of children of a Jewish father, will discriminate among members of our congregations and likely will seriously damage the already fragile Israel-Diaspora relationship,” he added.

The filings also include a letter from Sofa Landver, herself a Russian immigrant who served as immigration minister for nine years. “From my vast experience in absorbing immigrants from the former Soviet Union, I can certify that patrilineal Jews are closely tied and identified with the Jewish religion, customs and culture,” she wrote.

“In my humble opinion,” she continued, “there is no justification for distinguishing between widows and widowers of patrilineal and matrilineal Jews. Both deserve to be included in the Law of Return, and that is how it is best interpreted.”