Political deals over the Law of Return set the stage for the fight over the future of immigration

Israel’s Law of Return, long the lodestar of its immigration policy, will be on the chopping block under the incoming government, at least to a degree. An agreement made by incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party calls for his coalition to review and possibly amend the law’s so-called grandchild clause in the coming months.

The grandchild clause, which guarantees citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent provided they don’t practice another religion, has come under heavy fire since the latest election. The Religious Zionism party has repeatedly demanded that it be repealed, claiming — with scant evidence — that the clause has allowed vast numbers of non-Jews to immigrate to Israel and alter the Jewish identity of the state.

After the election, Religious Zionism was joined in this demand by the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, as well as the Otzma Yehudit and Noam parties that split off from Religious Zionism. Some Likud lawmakers, particularly religious ones, also called for repealing the clause, but Netanyahu and the party’s top leadership have quietly opposed the move, believing it would alienate both Diaspora Jewry — especially American Jewry — and Russian-speaking Israelis, who vote for Likud in large numbers.

Although the law change would be in place for all would-be immigrants, it would primarily affect those coming from the former Soviet Union.

The coalition agreement between United Torah Judaism and Likud, which was widely circulated on Thursday night, as well as a rough draft of principles between Likud and the far-right Otzma Yehudit, show that the grandchild clause has not been killed off yet, but that its future is unclear.

A committee made up of representatives from every coalition party will review immigration policy and determine how to proceed with legislation, according to the UTJ deal.

The coalition agreement sets a deadline of 60 days for the coalition to decide on legislation and gives the government until the passing of the budget — March 31 — to amend the law “to support an appropriate aliyah policy,” using the Hebrew term for Jewish immigration to Israel.

Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism party leader Yitzchak Goldknopf in the Knesset plenum on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Otzma Yehudit framework is more direct, but equally short on details, saying only that the two parties agreed “to amend the grandchild clause in the Law of Return,” but without specifying how it would be changed.

Earlier this month, in an interview with NBC, Netanyahu said that the matter would be discussed but that he did not believe the grandchild clause would be repealed.

“It’s going to be a big debate, but I have pretty firm views. I doubt we’ll have any changes [to the Law of Return,]Netanyahu declared.

Following the release of the coalition details, the Likud party reiterated the incoming premier’s opposition to the move.

“Our coalition partners demanded changing the grandchild clause of the Law of Return. Netanyahu did not agree. Therefore, it was decided to form a committee to discuss the topic,” Likud said.

The opposition to changing the Law of Return from within Likud is primarily embodied by MK Yuli Edelstein, who immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union. Edelstein, now an Orthodox Jew, is the son of a couple who converted to Christianity; his father is an Orthodox Christian priest.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein speaks in the Knesset on December 6, 2022. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

Edelstein spoke out unequivocally against the proposed alteration of the Law of Return in the Knesset, saying that amending it would have unintended consequences. “Leave it in peace,” he urged.

How it might play out

This leaves the Law of Return open to a variety of possibilities, ranging from a full repeal of the grandchild clause to maintaining the law in its current form. More likely is something in between, although where it lies on the spectrum will depend on the insistence of the parties and how much political capital they are willing to expend to get their way.

One relatively minor and non-controversial way that the incoming government could — and likely will — alter immigration policy would be to reverse a 2017 law that granted passports to new immigrants immediately upon receiving citizenship. Before 2017, new immigrants would only get a passport after living in Israel for a year, in the interim having to leave the country on a temporary “travel document.”

This ability to receive a passport immediately has drawn significant criticism in recent weeks, following news reports that showed large numbers of new immigrants, particularly from Russia, allegedly obtaining Israeli passports and then promptly leaving Israel and traveling abroad. Some have seen the reports as part of a political campaign to drive up public support for amending the Law of Return.

Backing for the reversal was alluded to in the UTJ coalition deal, which referred to the need to “prevent the misuse of the rights the state gives to new immigrants by those who return to their countries of origin shortly after immigrating to Israel.”

In this undated photo, Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata welcomes immigrants (Noga Malsa)

In the Knesset last week, Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said those figures were overblown and distorted, as many of those returning to Russia were doing so to settle their affairs — a process made more complicated by international sanctions against Russian institutions — before coming back to Israel to live for good.

However, despite staunchly opposing changing the Law of Return, she too said that she would support changing the so-called passport law.

Other, far more controversial ideas that have been floated as a compromise would be to offer only permanent residency, not citizenship, to grandchildren of Jews; to only offer citizenship to grandchildren of Jews in cases of family reunification, where a direct relative already lives in Israel; or to permit them to immigrate but to deny them the economic benefits that all other new immigrants receive, known as a “sal klita” or “absorption basket.”

Bringing in the Diaspora

The issue of repealing the grandchild clause has deeply riled international Jewish groups and Diaspora Jewry in general, with even the staunchest of Israel’s supporters warning against changing the Law of Return.

This is in large part because the Law of Return is seen as a gatekeeper of sorts to Jewish peoplehood. Many Jewish organizations use it to determine who is eligible to take part in their programming; curtailing it would symbolically bar some people from being seen as Jewish.

“It is deeply symbolic. It’s not about the practical impact, it’s about the symbolism,” said Scott Lasensky, a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland and long-time researcher of US-Israel relations.

For American Jews, while the rule change would not have a significant impact on immigration today, Lasensky said there is a view that changing the Law of Return could affect their children or grandchildren.

It is deeply symbolic. It’s not about the practical impact, it’s about the symbolism

“For the adult leaders [of the Jewish community] — people over 40 or over 50 years old — they’re not sure where their children and grandchildren will wind up on this spectrum of definition [of who is a Jew],” he said.

Lasensky added that on issues like the Law of Return and defining who is a Jew, Israelis tend to think that Diaspora Jewry has a right to voice its concerns, whereas they do not normally believe this to be the case on most other domestic and foreign policies .

“I think American Jewish leaders understand that if you’re going to weigh in on something, there is a willingness or a tolerance in Israel to hear it on issues where it directly affects [the Diaspora]. And this is an issue of direct relevance,” he said.

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