Israeli Minister Warns of Major Crisis With U.S. Jews Over Changes to Aliyah Laws

Outgoing Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai is concerned over the incoming government's intent to make millions of Jews ineligible for aliyah, and warns of a 'strategic mistake second to none'

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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"I have no doubt that there will be a sharp increase in the number of Jews who start saying, ‘This is not my Israel.’"
"I have no doubt that there will be a sharp increase in the number of Jews who start saying, ‘This is not my Israel.’"Credit: Drew Angerer / AFP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Changing the law to limit eligibility for aliyah and citizenship could put huge strains on Israel’s relationship with the American-Jewish community, warns outgoing Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai.

“It would be a strategic mistake second to none,” he says. “The American-Jewish community has always been our bridge to the U.S. administration. A move like this could cause that bridge to become very shaky.”

A key demand of the religious parties that are expected to be part of Israel’s next governing coalition is the cancellation of the “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return, which governs eligibility for aliyah and citizenship.

Under the current law, an individual with at least one Jewish grandparent is able to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship.

However, citing fears that too many immigrants in recent years do not fulfill the halakhic definition of “Jewish,” the religious parties want to change the law so that only individuals with at least one Jewish parent will be eligible for aliyah.

An estimated 3 million people around the world – the majority of them in the United States – would lose their right to immigrate to Israel if the “grandchild clause” is eliminated.

One of the parties, Religious Zionism, has also demanded that recognition of non-Orthodox conversions under the Law of Return also be withdrawn. Under the current law, all converts are eligible for aliyah and citizenship as long as they have been converted in an established Jewish community. It does not matter whether the rabbis overseeing their conversions were Orthodox or not.

Were the law to be changed, Jews of choice converted through the Reform or Conservative movements would lose their right to immigrate to Israel. The vast majority of American Jews are affiliated with these two movements.

Shai, a member of the Labor Party, says he does not believe Diaspora Jews would sever all ties with Israel. Instead, they would disengage – but at a much more rapid pace.

“It’s not going to happen all at once,” he says. “They’re not going to boycott Israel. But I have no doubt that there will be a sharp increase in the number of Jews who start saying, ‘This is not my Israel.’ They may not go out and demonstrate against Israel, but neither will they go out and demonstrate for Israel. They may also stop donating to big establishment organizations that raise money for Israel.

“It’ll be something like the ‘quiet quitting’ everybody is talking about now in the workplace,” he says.

Biggest mistake

Shai has been the rare example of a nonreligious politician to fill the post of Diaspora affairs minister. In recent days, he says, he has spoken to many Jewish community leaders around the world who are horrified by the prospect of an Israeli government that would choose to shut out many of their active members.

Outgoing Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai heading to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem last July.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem (pool)

“Something this government needs to know is that interfaith families are warmly embraced in places like the United States,” Shai says. “The proposed changes in the Law of Return would be the equivalent of saying: ‘We don’t accept your way of life, we don’t accept your rabbis and we don’t accept your conversions.’”

He notes that young American Jews have already begun to distance themselves from Israel and are increasingly sympathizing with the Palestinians, as recent polls have confirmed. “If this new government follows through with even some of the things it has been talking about, this trend will gain much more momentum,” he cautions.

Shai, 75, ranks the outgoing government’s unwillingness to revive the Western Wall deal among its biggest mistakes. First approved by the government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu in January 2016, this deal was meant to provide the non-Orthodox movements with equal status at the Jewish holy site. However, it was suspended 18 months later when the ultra-Orthodox parties threatened to quit the coalition.

Under the deal, the plaza designated for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall was to have been enlarged and made more accessible. In addition, the Reform and Conservatives movements were supposed to have representatives on the board that would supervise the section.

“One of the things I’m most angry about is that nothing was done to revive the deal when we had the opportunity,” Shai says. “Every time I went to [then-Prime Minister] Naftali Bennett to ask him what was going on, he’d say ‘Let’s wait,’ or ‘Not yet.’ This was something we should have done immediately, and time was not on our side.”

The new coalition government is likely to have a majority of Orthodox members. Given that composition, says Shai, “there’s no chance in the world that even a stone will be moved at the Kotel now.”

As part of the coalition agreement signed by the outgoing government, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry received 60 million shekels ($17 million) to promote projects related to Jewish renewal. Part of this money, which has still to be allocated, was meant to be handed over to the local branches of the Conservative and Reform movements.

“Will the new government try to intervene to stop this outflow of money?” Shai asks. “They may try, but it could be difficult because there are contracts that are about to be signed.”

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