Israel’s Top Court Forces Interior Ministry to Explain Discrimination Against Patrilineal Jews

Case followed closely in both U.S. and former Soviet bloc countries where, children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers are widely accepted in the Jewish community

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands with new Russian immigrants on their flight from Russia to Israel
OHAYON AVI / Government Press Office

Israel’s High Court of Justice has asked the state to explain its grounds for discriminating against patrilineal Jews. The request comes in response to a petition submitted by the widow of a patrilineal Jew, who was denied the right to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

A temporary injunction order, issued late last week by Israel’s top court, gives the Interior Ministry 60 day to respond.

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The case is being followed closely in both the United States and the former Soviet bloc countries where patrilineal Jews are widely accepted in the Jewish community.

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.

The petitioner, a Ukrainian woman, was told by the Interior Ministry 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. She and her late husband had four children, three of whom live in Israel and have completed their military service.

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

The petition, submitted to the High Court earlier this month, included 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.

“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 wrote.