Law of Return: Rabbi Lau Turns Against 'The Other'

Lau is right about the need to change the Law of Return, but his proposals laid out in a recent Haaretz interview smack of xenophobia.

Chief Rabbi David Lau in his Modi'in home. June 27, 2013. The smiling rabbi stands in front of his library of Judaica.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Chief Rabbi David Lau is right. The Law of Return needs to be changed. A law that serves as the fundamental DNA of the Jewish state cannot remain untouched for sixty-four years without improvements and updating. A few changes have been made over the years, but it is long overdue for a major overhaul. Only not along the lines Rabbi Lau is interested in.

In his fascinating Pessach interview with Yair Ettinger, Lau complains about the current situation whereby a man with "a grandfather who isn’t even buried here, he’s buried in Russbach, Germany, but because of one grandfather, 78 [relatives] of his wife, grandchildren, everyone gets absorption benefits and all the rights.”

There's a lot of logic in changing the eligibility criterion for Israeli citizenship in the current Law of Return. After all, it's based on the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany, which classified anyone with even one Jewish grandfather as Jewish. What's clear, however, is that Lau is trying to place - instead of the old law - the rules of the Orthodox rabbinate as the only framework for deciding who will be granted Israeli citizenship. He even wants to use the Jewish Agency's emissaries to “get to every corner of the world, to cemeteries, community records” and find out who is a kosher enough Jew to join us.

Lau knows the Diaspora much better than the average Israeli. He is aware that the potential candidates for aliyah can be divided into three groups. There are those Jews who remained connected to Orthodox community life, within whose families' intermarriage was strictly taboo and those who did marry out were ostracized. Lau has no problem with them; they can easily prove their credentials and will receive a blue identity card upon landing at Ben Gurion airport.

On the other end of the scale are those groups that claim today to have a historical Jewish lineage, such as the Falashmura in Ethiopia and the Bnei Menashe in India. Lau, careful not to be accused of racism, does not mention them specifically, though he is no different from the other Haredi rabbis who never recognized these groups as Jews (with the single exception of Rabbi Ovadia Yossef who. in 1974 ruled the Ethiopian Beita Yisrael were Jewish and paved the way for their immigration).

The third group is those Jews who grew up and are still growing up with complex identities, in societies where marriage between Jews and non-Jews is not seen at all as strange or undesired, while many of the offspring of these relationships continue to see themselves as Jewish. This is the case with over 300,000 Israeli citizens who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, and who the Israeli Chief Rabbinate will not recognize as Jews. The state, to its shame, classified them as "without religion" and without the basic human right of being able to get married. And that's the case with a growing proportion of the Jews living today in the U.S. and in other countries in the West. Lau is trying to prevent them from receiving Israeli citizenship, should they choose to emigrate, under the excuse that he is making their lives easier by not becoming second-class citizens in Israel.

He knows, of course, that saying so outright will bring upon him the rage of the leaders of the major Jewish-American organizations, so he points his spotlight elsewhere. “The state of Israel has to decide if it wants to be a welfare state for the Third World, bringing in everyone who has a connection with Judaism, or perhaps only those who are Jews," he says in the interview. "Maybe we really can't provide space here for everyone who wants."

It's interesting that Lau chose to say this sentence in an interview, not in a private conversation overheard or leaked. He had consciously decided to ride the dark wave of racism sweeping Israeli society. He may have grown up and been educated in the Haredi world, but he is well connected and knows the prevailing views. Most Israelis have no problem with a young American with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who decides to live in Israel, serve in the IDF and join the workforce. Actually, they would feel much closer to that Israeli than to the "kosher" sons of Lau. But those coming from the "Third World" (a term that few in the west use anymore, preferring "developing countries") are another story. Many Israelis don't like them very much, even if they claim to have descended from Jews.

In his Haaretz interview, Lau mentions that Yossi Beilin has also called for changing the Law of Return. But Beilin, one of the few secular left-wing Israeli politicians to be aware of the concerns of the Diaspora, never said that the Chief Rabbinate should have a say in who gets to become Israeli. On the contrary, his proposal was that the law be changed so the state would also recognize immigrants with just a Jewish father (and not mother) as "Jewish."

Beilin wasn't alone. Reform-minded interior ministers such as Ophir Pines-Paz and Meir Sheetrit have also tried to change the Law of Return, but lacked sufficient time in office. Over the last five years, they have been replaced by interior ministers Eli Yishai and Gideon Sa'ar who have instead made political capital out of persecuting, demonizing and deporting refugees. Now Chief Rabbi Lau is joining them. He may not be considered, even by those who supported his candidacy, as a great Torah scholar, but he's a shrewd politician. He understands that he can score public opinion points with xenophobic utterances like "a welfare state for the Third World."

The Law of Return should be changed so Israel retains its role as a haven ready to shelter Jews if they are ever again persecuted for their identity, but ceases to be a bolt-hole for every corrupt oligarch and criminal on the run who were lucky enough to be born Jewish. It should be changed so non-Jewish refugees and family members of Israeli-Arabs also have a path to citizenship.

The solution for the terrible injustice to the citizens "without religion" must be taking away the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly on marriage, not giving the rotten establishment headed by David Lau additional powers to decide who can become an Israeli.