Far-right Israeli Leader Doubles Down on Amending Law of Return

The Religious Zionism leader wants to remove a clause in the Law of Return that lets grandchildren of Jews receive Israeli citizenship, calling it a ‘Jewish time bomb that must be dealt with’

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Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich last month.
Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Incoming Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich doubled down on his support for amending the Law of Return to rescind the eligibility of requiring at least one Jewish grandparent to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship.

“We stand by [our position],” Smotrich told ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama on Sunday,” calling current immigration policies “one of the biggest threats to Israeli demography, to the country’s Jewish identity and assimilation.”

“This is a social and Jewish time bomb that must be dealt with. We insist on it and will continue to insist on it,” Smotrich added.

Smotrich’s comments seemed to come in response to prime minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration on Sunday downplaying the possibility of changing the law.

Speaking with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Netanyahu stated that while the issue would lead to what he called “a big debate,“ he has “pretty firm views” and “I doubt we’ll have any changes.”

Any modification of the Law of Return will “require real careful deliberation, and you don’t just come off and do these things,” Netanyahu asserted. “If you look at my history and my record, I’ve looked for creative solutions to these kinds of impasses, including the question of conversion.”

Concerned that too many immigrants in recent years do not fulfill the halakhic definition of Jewish, the religious parties set to be in Israel’s next governing coalition have demanded that the law be changed so that only individuals with at least one Jewish parent would be eligible for aliyah.

Such a move, which has drawn harsh criticism from U.S. Jews, would mean that nearly 3 million people with Jewish roots – the overwhelming majority of them from America – could lose their right to immigrate to Israel.

On average, only about 3,000 Americans immigrate to Israel annually and most of them are Orthodox Jews. This means that, in practice, a change in the definition of eligibility would not have a major impact on aliyah. “But symbolically, it would be a major change – and a very stupid move,” Prof. Emeritus Sergio Della Pergola, Israel’s leading demographer, told recently told Haaretz.

Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog has also urged Israel’s incoming government to refrain from any changes in the Law of Return, stating last month that “as the challenging task of forming a new government gets underway, we believe that it is critical to ensure our relations with world Jewry remain intact and that the everlasting commitment to enable Jews from all corners of the globe to make Aliyah must be upheld.”

Ukrainian refugees at Ben Gurion Airport.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Several years ago, Israel announced that, for the first time, Jewish immigrants to Israel were outnumbered by non-Jewish immigrants.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 17,700 of the 32,600 migrants who moved to Israel in 2018 came under the Law of Return but were listed as “having no religion.”

Such immigrants, hailing largely from the former Soviet Union and Baltic states, count Jewish ancestry but are ineligible to marry as Jews, for example, under the state-controlled rabbinic court system. In 2017, there were 11,400 such immigrants out of a migratory population of 29,100.

The result has been a heated debate over Jewish identity, the country’s strict Orthodox standards for converting to Judaism and how to best integrate new immigrants into the life of a Jewish state.

At the time, and prior to the wave of immigration following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, there were already some 400,000 people, mostly from the former Soviet Union, living in Israel who are not considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate. Such immigrants and their children are “caught in a bureaucratic void, unable to marry in State-sanctioned weddings, and to partake in other basic rights of Jewish citizenry,” according to Itim, an advocacy group that works to help Israelis navigate the country’s religious bureaucracy.

JTA contributed to this report.

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