On July 5, 1950, the Knesset enacted the Law of Return (“hok hashvut,” in Hebrew), the policy that has made it possible for some 2.7 million people to claim Israeli citizenship as Jews or descendants of Jews.
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During the first two years of statehood, nearly 700,000 self-defined Jews immigrated to Israel – most of them Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab countries or other Jews who had been denied entry during the years of British rule. The Law of Return was intended to codify the principle that any Jew was eligible to show up in the State of Israel and demand to be made a citizen.
By design, the law was narrow, with no desire on the part of the legislators to have it apply to other categories of individuals. As then-MK Ami Assaf said, in 1950, the Law of Return was meant to deal only with “the right of a Jew, as a Jew, to return to the Land of Israel in a special fashion.”
Who is a Jew?
In time, however, it became apparent that there was no clear consensus on what constituted a Jew, or on who else might deserve to be included in the club for purposes of citizenship. Thus, in 1970, the Knesset passed an amendment to the Law of Return, which established the terms that largely apply today.
According to that amendment, anyone born to a Jewish mother, or who had at least one Jewish grandparent, as well as converts to Judaism or spouses of Jews, can claim citizenship. In this regard, the 1970 amendment to the Law of Return adopted the same standards set by the Third Reich in the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935, by which it was sufficient to have one Jewish grandparent in one’s family tree to be condemned as a Jew.
Recognition under the Law of Return does not constitute recognition as a Jew by the state: That judgment is left in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate, which operates according to its understanding of Orthodox Jewish law.
This is not a minor detail. If approximately one million people from the Former Soviet Union who moved to Israel in the decade following 1989 were granted Israeli citizenship, it is estimated that as many as a third of them are not halakhically Jewish (according to religious law), no matter how they define themselves. That makes them ineligible to marry in a Jewish ceremony in Israel – and there is no option for civil marriage here.
Citizenship terms for Palestinians and converts
If the 1950 Law of Return set the terms for Jews becoming Israelis, the 1952 Law on Citizenship set out the conditions that Palestinians needed to meet to receive citizenship. They had to have been in the country at the time that statehood was declared, as well as for three of the five years preceding their application, and they had to have been present and accounted for when the country’s Population Registry was compiled in 1951. That pretty much excluded anyone who fled or was expelled from the country during the War of Independence, even if they had returned to the state in the interim.
Over the years, a variety of Supreme Court cases have narrowed the definition of eligibility for the Law of Return. Most significantly, in 1962, in the case of Oswald Rufeisen – a Polish Jew who had converted to Christianity during the Holocaust and become a Carmelite priest calling himself “Brother Daniel” -- the High Court ruled that the Law of Return did not cover those who have adopted another religion. (A year later, Rufeisen was granted citizenship by way of naturalization.)
Presently Israel’s population is about 8.3 million, of which 6.2 million are Jewish.
Periodically, there is discussion about whether the Law of Return is still needed, or about amending it further. Last year, the new Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, called for limiting it to cover only halakhically defined Jews. Apparently conflating non-Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union with the unpopular wave of African refugees who entered the country in recent years, he told Haaretz reporter Yair Ettinger that, “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.”