Improve the Law of Return, Don’t Annul It

We must change the Law of Return to state that a person who honestly declares himself part of the Jewish people should have his Jewishness recognized by the state.

Moti Kimche

In his interview in Haaretz’s Passover-eve edition, Chief Rabbi David Lau said that when I was religious affairs minister I called for the annulment of the Law of Return. I have no idea where he got that from. I wanted to change some clauses in the law, but not to annul it.

To me, the Law of Return is one of Israel’s most important laws, if not the most important one, because it sets us apart as a country that opens its doors to all Jews all over the world, no matter who they are. If the state had existed before the destruction of European Jewry, and if it had had a law like this in the 1930s and not just since 1950, the history of the Jewish people would be totally different.

Until 1958 the law wasn’t very controversial. But in that year the debate over “who is a Jew” began, with the request by a Jewish-born Catholic monk, Brother Daniel, to be registered as a Jew. According to the original law, he should have been registered as a Jew, but the government said his conversion made this impossible, and the Supreme Court upheld the notion that a Catholic (who had hidden from the Nazis in a convent and converted) could not be registered as a Jew.

Until 1958 all people who declared themselves Jews were registered as Jews, because there was no reason to suspect they were lying. Israel was a poor country and the Knesset didn’t fear that masses of non-Jews would seek citizenship here.

But over the years Israel has become an attractive destination, mainly for people from the developing world. So the law was amended, and an investigation into one’s Jewishness has become a burdensome and often humiliating part of the naturalization process.

The chief rabbi’s proposals will only make things harder. A large bureaucracy for “clarifying Judaism” might eliminate the need for some conversions, but it would produce a new generation of Judaism detectives — which isn’t what we need. We must change the Law of Return to state that a person who declares himself part of the Jewish people and is not a member of another religion, someone who does so on an individual basis and not as part of a collective, should have his Jewishness recognized by the state.

The state will have the right to withhold such recognition if the relevant government authority (which will not merely be an Interior Ministry clerk) has a reasonable suspicion that the person has no connection to the Jewish people but merely seeks the financial and other benefits conferred by Israeli citizenship. The applicant must of course receive the right to appeal this refusal.

With all due respect to the chief rabbi, Orthodox Judaism cannot alone determine who is a Jew. This is a national issue, not a religious one. For some time now, a person designated a Jew by the state has not necessarily been a Jew in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate.

Under current law, a person who converts under Reform auspices abroad and immigrates to Israel must be registered as a Jew by the Interior Ministry, but there is no way Rabbi Lau, even if he turns out more liberal than expected, will let him be married under the only marriage procedures available in Israel. That immigrant, like many others, will have to go to Cyprus; only when he returns with his wife will the Interior Ministry register him as married.

Since that’s already the case, we can go one step further and make do with a self-definition of Judaism, without the system of investigations conducted today, and certainly without the Judaism detective squad being suggested by Rabbi Lau.

What will happen if, as a result, we end up with many people recognized as Jews who turn out not to be? Well, they will live among us and speak Hebrew, their children will study in our schools and serve in the army, and they will become part of the Jewish majority in Israel that lives a secular life. The last thing we need to fear is increasing Israel’s Jewish majority.

If it later becomes clear that the bureaucracy really can’t shore up the gates against millions of people trying to declare themselves Jews, we can amend the law to close that loophole. But it seems to me that this fear is very excessive.