Should Israel change the Law of Return?

Passengers disembark from an airplane carrying Jewish immigrants fleeing the war in Ukraine, upon arrival in Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, on March 6, 2022. (Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

As part of coalition negotiations with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the Religious Zionism party, Shas, and United Torah Judaism are demanding changes to Israel’s foundational Law of Return, sparking an outcry from major international Jewish groups.

Their first demand is to remove the law’s “grandchild clause” which states that anyone with a Jewish grandparent is eligible to immigrate to Israel. Instead, the religious parties want to limit immigration to those with at least one Jewish parent.

In addition to canceling the “grandchild clause,” the religious parties are also demanding to only recognize Orthodox conversions for purposes of citizenship. 

This would mean that those who converted through the Reform or Conservative movements would not be eligible to make aliyah. Israel has accepted Reform and Conservative conversions for citizenship purposes since 1989.

The Likud party, which will head the new government, has not said whether it will agree to the demands. Although most experts think it’s unlikely the proposal will go ahead, the prospect of it raised serious concerns among many Diaspora Jewish leaders.

It also revived the age-old debate over the question, “Who is a Jew?” With Israel set to have its most religious government in history, we wanted to unpack the proposed changes and reactions from Israelis and the Jewish world.

What do Israelis think about the proposed changes to the Law of Return? What do Diaspora Jewish leaders think and what would the implications be for the entire Jewish world?

What is the Law of Return?

The Law of Return offers every Jewish person born anywhere in the world automatic citizenship. But, who is a Jew?

Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence states the basic idea behind this famous law: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles (kibbutz galuyot).”

The Law of Return was passed in 1950 and it left open the definition of a Jew. Immediately, debates surfaced about who was considered Jewish under the law. Watch our video on the age-old question, “Who decides who is a Jew?”

This question played out in a famous Israeli Supreme Court case in 1962, involving a monk called Brother Daniel.

Brother Daniel was born Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Jew. During the Holocaust, he converted to Catholicism and saved hundreds of Jews from being deported to concentration camps. 

In the 1950s, hoping to flee a surge of antisemitism in Poland, Brother Daniel wanted to make aliyah to Israel.

However, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that he did not qualify for the Law of Return because he had converted to a different religion.

Under an amendment adopted in 1970, a Jew was defined as one who was born to a Jewish mother (the halachic definition) or converted, while not being a member of another religion.

In addition, the Law of Return was extended to anyone who has a Jewish parent or grandparent, and anyone whose spouse has a Jewish parent or grandparent. Watch our video on the Law of Return to learn more.

“There is a widely held belief that the 1970 amendment, with its ‘grandchild clause,’ was inspired by the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, which established that anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent would be considered Jewish under Germany’s racial purity laws,” Judah Ari Gross of the Times of Israel explained.

“This narrative is incorrect historically but is nevertheless almost universally accepted as true and is regularly repeated by politicians today, matching the viewpoint that Israel is meant to serve as a haven for Jews against antisemitism,” he added.

Israelis continued debating the question of “who is a Jew” under the Law of Return. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that those who had converted to Judaism through the Reform and Conservative movements abroad were included in the Law of Return.

In 2021, the court expanded this further, ruling that Israel would recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed within the Jewish state as well (for people who were already living in Israel but were not yet citizens).

However, the Orthodox Rabbinate — which controls marriage, divorce, burial and other family matters in Israel — does not recognize non-Orthodox converts as Jewish. 

Therefore, although Reform and Conservative converts are permitted to make aliyah, they are not permitted to get married or divorced within Israel.

Diversity of perspectives

Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog urged the new government not to make any changes to the Law of Return.

“It is critical to ensure our relations with world Jewry remain intact…the everlasting commitment to enable Jews from all corners of the globe to make Aliyah must be upheld,” he said in a statement

“At this hour, we believe that nothing is more important than the unity of the Jewish people, including all its denominations,” he added.

Yizhar Hess, deputy chairman of the World Zionist Organization, agreed. “A government that will, Heaven forbid, touch the Law of Return is a government that has forgotten what it is to be a Zionist,” he said. 

“The Law of Return is the DNA of the Zionist movement. The Law of Return is the basis for the idea that the State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people…You don’t slam a door in the face of your family,” he added.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of the Orthodox religious rights group Itim, also decried the proposal, arguing it was antithetical to halakha.

“At this critical juncture in the history of the State of Israel, unilateral actions that would further bifurcate the Jewish people undermine the Zionist project, and in fact, counter normative halachic tradition,” he said. 

“Jewish law is meant to be a system that is characterized, in the words of Maimonides, as a system whose paths are paths of peace. Such populist legislation will deepen the fissures among our people,” Farber said.

On the other side, United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev expressed his support of the proposal, telling an Israeli radio station: 

“We think that taking a family that has been living as distinctly Christian for two generations and saying that [they are Jewish] because they had a Jewish grandfather three generations back — is something that needs to be corrected.”

Similarly, the Israeli Immigration Policy Center also praised the proposal, saying that it would prevent “massive and legal non-Jewish immigration,” “stop the trend of shrinking the Jewish majority in Israel, and ensure the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish state.”

Meanwhile, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef, also backed the efforts to amend the Law of Return, saying in a weekly Torah lesson at a Jerusalem synagogue: “This is an Orthodox state, not a Reform one.” He further accused Reform Judaism of “causing assimilation abroad.”

Reactions from the Diaspora

William Daroff, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, expressed his serious concerns about the proposal, saying it threatened a “bedrock of Zionism.”

“Our forbearers took the Nuremberg laws and said if one grandparent was enough to kill you, it’s enough to let you in,” Daroff said. 

The Reform and Conservative movements also denounced the proposed changes and urged presumptive incoming Prime Minister Netanyahu to reject them.

“The demands to cancel recognition of Reform conversions and to alter the Law of Return are dangerous demands that will mean the State of Israel will stop being the country of the entire Jewish people and will instead become an Orthodox-Haredi Jewish state,” Orly Erez Likhovski, the head of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, said in a statement.

“These steps will cause an irreparable rift with Diaspora Jewry,” she added.

Similarly, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly said in a statement: “Israel is not a theocracy…To deny the authenticity of Reform and Masorti-Conservative Judaism would effectively sever Israel’s connection with millions of Jews throughout the world.”

“Agudath Israel, the umbrella organization for Haredi Jews in the United States, said it deferred to Israeli United Torah Judaism party [which supports ending recognition of non-Orthodox conversions]. The Orthodox Union, which is modern Orthodox, did not immediately respond to a request for comment,” The Forward reported.