With Less Than Open Arms

Have you immigrated to Israel? Now wait. If it were up to the dean of the Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Law, Prof. Yaffa Zilbershatz, new immigrants would receive Israeli citizenship only after three to five years. Until then, they would have resident status. Zilbershatz, a leading expert on matters of citizenship, surprised the members of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee with this idea, in a discussion held last week regarding the article on citizenship in the preamble to the constitution. She thus added another proposal to the increasing number of initiatives to bring about a revolution in the Law of Return.

A loyalty package. Zilbershatz believes citizenship must be conditional on two principles: residency and loyalty. Residency can last several years. But she wants to require those who immigrate to Israel, including new olim ?(immigrants who are eligible for the "right of return" because of Jewish ancestry?), to be subject to a "loyalty package," which will include, in addition to a declaration of loyalty, knowledge of the language, culture and history - things that testify to the link between the person seeking citizenship and the state. The result, she claims, will be egalitarian: All those seeking citizenship, including Jews, will be required to wait and undergo exams to receive citizenship. The principle of residence has additional significance, in her opinion. She suggests canceling the citizenship of yordim ?(Israelis who leave the country?) after 10 years. "It's not logical," she says, "for people to live in America for 30 years and to participate in [Israeli] elections."

A city of refuge. At that same meeting of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, attorney Yaakov Ne?eman spelled out another reason why olim should be required to live here for several years: "So that they won?t use Israeli citizenship as a refuge. The Law of Return has been exploited in certain cases for negative purposes. Jews have immigrated to Israel, stayed for six months to a year, received a passport, and never showed up in Israel again."

A sacred cow. The Law of Return, which asserts the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel, is undoubtedly the most important of the laws that determine the nature of Israel as a Jewish state. Former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak said more than once that the law should be anchored as a Basic Law. Former Knesset speaker Reuven ?(Ruby?) Rivlin described it as "the ultimate sacred cow." "After 60 years," says Zilbershatz, "the time has come to rethink this entire business and to consider a substantial change of the Law of Return."

Without the grandchild. In the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, there was broad agreement that the "grandchild clause" in the Law of Return must be cancelled. This is an article that states that not only a Jew and the son of a Jew can immigrate to Israel, but the grandson of a Jew, as well. This article was added to the law in 1970, as a counterweight to the Nuremberg Laws, which were applied to the descendants of Jews up to the third generation in Nazi Germany. But in the course of the large wave of aliyah in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the grandchild clause enabled hundreds of thousands of non-Jews to immigrate here for economic reasons. Instead of the grandchild clause, it is being suggested that there be a clause about a link to Judaism; for example, membership in a recognized Jewish community.Livni?s mandate. Proposals to cancel or change the grandchild clause have a long history. In December 1999, Rabbi Michael Melchior, at the time the chair of the Ministerial Committee on Conversion, presented a program in which the grandchild clause would apply only to grandchildren who came with their parents. During her first term in the Knesset, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni submitted a bill canceling the grandchild clause. When she was appointed minister of absorption in 2003, Ariel Sharon, the prime minister at the time, explained to her that her mandate did not include changing the Law of Return.

No interest in Judaism. Ruth Gavison, the candidate for the Supreme Court, recently wrote that "there is no place for granting eligibility by dint of the Law of Return," to someone who has no interest in Jewish life, and who occasionally is the member of another religion. These words apparently relate both to the Falash Mura ?(Ethiopian converts to Christianity?) and to many of the non-Jewish olim from the CIS. She also suggested testing financial ability to make aliyah, which would make aliyah from Third World countries very difficult.

American pressure. As opposed to Gavison, Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science, does not propose changing the Law of Return, but only ending the dispatching of emissaries "to look for grandchildren of Jews all over the Soviet Union." Both of them wrote their proposals in position papers that they published in the context of the Shmuel Neeman Institute of the Technion − Israel Institute of Technology. Avineri also believes that we shouldn?t bring Jews who have converted to Christianity to Israel, in other words, the Falash Mura. "The only reason we are bringing the Falash Mura," says Avineri, "is the pressure of Jewish organizations in the United States. They don't want black Jews, but it?s very easy to send them to Israel."

One short sentence. Why are the chances that the Law of Return will be changed very slim? First of all, it looks as though there is no chance that the constitution will pass. Second, because even if there is broad consensus that the Law of Return should be changed, all the players in the political court are afraid it will be changed in a direction that will harm them. The Reform Jews, for example, are afraid that any change will be exploited to rule that conversion will be performed only according to halakha ?(religious law?). That is also the reason why at this stage the preamble being written to the constitution contains only one short sentence to the effect that Jews and their families have a right to immigrate to Israel. The Law of Return may yet be integrated as a chapter in the proposed constitution, but this debate has been deferred to a later stage by the chair of the committee, Menahem Ben-Sasson.

There is also an even stronger fear that the moment they begin to slaughter the sacred cow they won?t stop, and who knows where it will end. MK Yuli Edelstein explained in 1996, when he was minister of absorption, that he was opposed to canceling the grandchild clause for fear that the left would exploit this to overturn the entire Law of Return and the Jewish character of the State of Israel.Not the same house. Unsurprisingly, the leaders of the Jewish Agency have a long tradition of opposition to changing the Law of Return. Perhaps it stems from concern for the relations between Israel and the Diaspora, and perhaps from a fear that if the law is curtailed, it will be more difficult for the Jewish Agency to recruit olim. In the wake of the publication of Melchior's plan, the chair of the Jewish Agency at the time, Sallai Meridor, said that "the very fact of opening [the subject of] the Law of Return is dangerous and damaging." He also claimed that cancelling the grandchild clause would have almost no effect on the number of non-Jews coming to Israel. The present chair of the Jewish Agency, Zeev Bielski, warns that "the moment that people are accepted to the national home of the Jewish people on the basis of exams, it won?t be the same home."