Discussing the Law of Return

| April 12, 2012 | 3 Comments

Carrying on real conversation in Twitter is nigh-impossible. As such we’re going to try to move a discussion that started in Twitter to this site, to allow contributing more than 140 characters at a time.

It all started when Shmarya Rosenberg wrote his amusingly titled article No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition for the Daily Beast’s Open Zion group blog (the blog formerly known as Zion Square for those not following). Shmarya, not being known as a strong Zionist, wrote his article on the need for a Jewish state – not because of religious reasons, or even nationalistic reasons, but simply for the reason that history has proven that Jews need a land of refuge.

We asked Shmarya via Twitter how his article meshed with Peter Beinart’s call in the introduction to his blog (as we saw it) to restrict immigration of Jews to Israel to only those who were actively fleeing persecution. The relevant line from his intro was:

Would Israel cease being a Jewish state if it…restricted the right of return to those Jews actually fleeing persecution?

Peter Beinart responded to our tweet, that it wasn’t his proposal, but that of Gershom Gorenberg, who also contributes to the Open Zion blog. Of course, Beinart doesn’t mention that it is a proposal by Gorenberg in his article, and it seems to be a suggestion made by him, but reading through it again, it could be interpreted as throwing out multiple ideas for discussion. We can accept that, but were confused by Beinart’s response that he didn’t endorse the proposal. Our question was okay, if you’re not endorsing it that’s one thing, but do you disagree with it? Plenty of people support the various candidates for President without endorsing them. No response has yet been received to that question.

Next came a response to Beinart from Gershom Gorenberg, explaining that he made no such proposal and to read the appropriate passage in his book, The Unmaking of Israel. Here’s the twitter discussion:

Law of Return Tweets

At this point, we tried to track down a copy of Gorenberg’s book, which took a bit of time. When we finally read the passage in question, our impression was that Gorenberg was trying to differentiate between those that were moving to Israel for economic reasons and those who are fleeing their countries of birth due to persectution. Some of the relevant passage:

Israel still has an obligation to allow immigration of Jews who simply want to live in a country where Jews are the majority.

I do not pretend to have a full policy in mind. I do believe that Jewish history and basic humanity require giving preference to the Darfuri refugee over economic immigrants.

As for Jewish repatriation, it requires giving priority to two overlapping groups of people: Jews and people persecuted as Jews. In the latter group, someone with one peternal Jewish grandparent and no particular sense of being Jewish might conceivably face discrimination or even death threats because of her neighbors’ racial anti-Semitism somewhere in the world. She should be allowed entry even at a lower level of danger than normally necessary to qualify for asylum. If the same person wants to move from Azerbaijan to Israel only to improve her standard of living, she should get in line with the other economic immigrants.

Initially, we responded that it seemed Gorenberg was suggesting just that those who were being persecuted should get priority over those coming for economic reasons, and since he believed all Jews who wanted to live in Israel should be able to do so, then wasn’t this just adding bureacracy? A closer reading, however, suggests something slightly different. It seems Gorenberg is suggesting that there are three levels of immigrants, possibly four, in order of priority:

  1. Jews Fleeing Persecution (“lower level of danger than normally necessary to qualify for asylum”)
  2. Non-Jewish Asylum Seekers (“giving preference to the Darfuri refugee over economic immigrants”)
  3. Economic Immigrants (Gorenberg uses two phrases that seem to contradict each other, so this may actually be two categories, Jewish and Non-Jewish. The two phrases are “it requires giving priority to two overlapping groups of people: Jews and people persecuted as Jews” and “she should get in line with the other economic immigrants”. It seems the second phrase takes priority, however, so we assume Gorenberg groups all economic immigrants together.)

So if Peter Beinart was referencing Gershom Gorenberg’s proposal, it seems he misread it or at least didn’t explain it properly. However, our original criticism about adding layers of bureacracy still seems to ring true – if you start out by saying that Jews should be allowed to move to Israel, then making different categories for Jews who are fleeing persecution, and those coming for economic reasons, is really just adding bureacracy. Once you make that distinction, won’t Jews who want to move to Israel just say they are fleeing persecution?

Gorenberg’s response to that was that “Having official body to deal with asylum claims is obligation of government, from which Israel not exempt.” We don’t really see how that answers the question, or even frankly what it means. Obviously Israel deals with asylum claims. The most famous case was the group of Vietnamese boat people during Begin’s time, but even today there are refugees that are granted residency in Israel. Israel indeed has an offical group, formed from members of the Ministries of Interior, Justice and Foreign Affairs, which determines status of refugees after they have been vetted by the Ministry of Interior. They could create a new body in name to do the same thing, but isn’t that just nomenclature?

The real question which remains unanswered is won’t Jews who want to move to Israel just say they are persecuted? How will the government vet Jews who using Gorenberg’s description “might conceivably face discrimination or even death threats because of her neighbors’ racial anti-Semitism” and say they want to move to Israel? Will the Israeli government send a representative to interview the person’s neighbors and see if they’re really Antisemitic? or check with the local police department to see if a death threat was registered against the person?

Would certain countries be given fast-track access for immigrants? How would that be determined? Would Jews in Toulouse have had their immigration requests fast-tracked after the terrorist attack there recently? Is the Israeli government best equiped to determine such danger so the next group of Jews that seek to immigrate because of a worsening situation would assuredly be allowed to immigrate quickly, so if such an attack was coming, they would be able to avoid it? What of Jews in Chicago and Dallas who recently had Antisemitic graffiti sprayed in their cities – would they now qualify to immigrate ahead of non-Jewish Asylum seekers? Just Jews in those cities, or the states of Illinois and Texas, or the whole United States? How are things going to be determined? By the new official government body that Gorenberg recommends? What happens when Jews from one community are waiting in line with other ‘economic immigrants’ because this body determined they were not persecuted, and members of that community are killed? Will sorry suffice?

Gorenberg does mention that the current standard for qualifying to immigrate under the Law of Return is having a single Jewish grandparent. We don’t have the book here, so we don’t know if he mentions the origin of that standard eslewhere or not, but in this section he merely says

…the Law of Return, which in its current form grants automatic entry to anyone with one Jewish grandparent.

When the law was formulated in the 1950s, it merely said that Jews were entitled to return to Israel, without defining who was a Jew. In 1970, due to a number of legal challenges, the Law of Return was amended to allow any Jew, or the children and grandchildren of Jews, to immigrate to Israel. It was not coincidence that this one-grandparent rule mirrors the Nuremberg laws in Germany which legalized discrimination against Jews in the 1930s. The Nuremberg laws defined a Jew as anyone with a single Jewish grandparent. The ameneded Law of Return recognized that if someone could be persecuted for having a single Jewish grandparent, then they should similarly be allowed refuge if they had a single Jewish grandparent. As Shmarya pointed out in his article, there is a long history of persecution of Jews that support the need for a Jewish refuge, and the Nuremberg laws were less than a hundred years ago in a modern Western country, so perhaps the current Law of Return’s definition is quite appropriate if the goal is to protect Jews from persecution.

So with this analysis we ask Peter Beinart to respond about both the idea of restricting Jewish immigration to Israel, and Gorenberg’s proposal for shuffling the queue, and if he finds anything to support in these proposals. If you do endorse a change to the Law of Return, what is it?

We also ask Shmarya Rosenberg what he thinks about changing the Law of Return, and if it was up to him, how he would change it.

Lastly, we hope to gain clarification from Gershom Gorenberg if we have accurately described his proposal, and to hear any additional comments from him on the Law of Return.

Our comments are open.

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Category: Policy

Comments (3)

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  1. Anthony says:

    I would like to summarize myself personally, and my relation to “The Law Of Return” or Aliyah..
    My father’s heritage is of Sephardim jews, & I am the fourth generation in the U.S. I have a family of my own and have thought considerably in the recent year of immigrating to Israel, as a birth right and as a political assessment of Jews.
    Well, I’ve recently discovered, & this is still a premature notion; that Israel will not condone in accepting and granting citizenship to Messianic Jews. (which I happen to be..) I myself feel that the entire establishment of a Jewish state was to provide the assurance to “All” Jews, not based on religious forums. It just seems very irrelevant to the political standard. I am ethnically a Jew, but because I do not practice Orthodox Judaism, than i am denounced as a Jew? if I were Atheist or of any other religious custom, I doubt there would be much of an issue; or perhaps if I was non ethnically a Jew, but conformed to Judaic customs. But this is sincerely a contradiction; I do not wish to relocate myself, and my family on the basis of converting other Jewish people who still practice the customs of our ancestors. furthermore, my father was adopted & it wasn’t until We had contact with his biological parents and did a lot of searching, did we come across our heritage. We lived in a small town with the religious preference being Christian; & he was brought up with that religious preference through his adoptive parents.
    I also in correspondence to my concern, feel that the West Bank, not particularly being a governed state of Israel; but yet they continue to maintain their presence in this region. So it becomes a personal discrimination followed with the Israeli government not giving Palestinians either a state of their own, or citizenship. I’ve recently kept up with the Benjamin Netanyahu statements addressed at AIPAC; & although as a Zionist, i feel strong zeal for Jews having their own state, which is proposed under democracy. But it is difficult to attempt to convey to other Americans who are non-Jewish, the seriousness of the Iranian/Israel proposal. I fully support the notions of a Jewish state, which is once again I say Democratic. But as the U.S nation which is a frontier leader behind democracy; should insist in participating. Americans should take sincere concern in supporting Israel’s sovereignty and the threat which is assumed with Iran accumulating the materials to make weaponry which We ourselves are trying to manage the disposal of. If we as a nation can’t support another nation’s Independence & right of freedom than how can we further support Anti-terrorism and the elimination of nuclear weapons? how can we justify the Saddam Hussein & Osama bin lad-din retaliation & executions? In my personal opinion there are a lot of discrepancies that are, & have been effecting many people in immoral ways throughout the Western World.

    • admin says:

      As you yourself have pointed out, Messianic Judaism is not Judaism, but a form of Christianity. Just as the Law of Return allows those who choose the Jewish religion (under any Jewish denomination outside of Israel) to immigrate to Israel, it consistently rejects the immigration of those who were Jewish, but chose a different religion. This was best illustrated by the Brother Daniel case in 1962, where a Catholic Monk who had been born Jewish wanted to immigrate to Israel. Ironically of course, even though his petition was rejected by the Supreme Court to immigrate under the Law of Return, he did in fact immigrate not under the Law of Return and became a naturalized citizen of Israel in later years. In terms of Messianic Jews, the courts have ruled similarly, although with a loophole of sorts. The Law of Return:

      1) accepts those with a single Jewish grandparent
      2) rejects those who have converted out of the religion

      Thus, those Messianic Jews whose fathers were Jewish, but not their mothers, can immigrate since they were never Jewish to begin with, but still qualify under the Law of Return since they have a Jewish grandparent.

  2. The last word in the Bible is ויעל, “he should ascend”, which is the end of Cyrus’ pronouncement: “‘Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth hath the LORD, the God of heaven, given me; and He hath charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people–the LORD his God be with him–let him go up.’”. And going back to the beginning of the formation of the Jewish nation, it is Avraham who is commanded to get out of his father’s country to the land that will become the Jewish homeland.

    As for “economic aliyah”, the Talmud already discussed that: “Rabbi Simlai expounded: Why did Moses our teacher yearn to enter the land of Israel? Did he want to eat of its fruits or satisfy himself from its bounty? But thus said Moses: “Many mitzvot were commanded to Israel which can only be fulfilled in Eretz Yisrael. I wish to enter the land so that they may all be fulfilled by me” (Sotah 14a).

    Anyone suggesting a limitation, restriction or reformulation of the law of Return is not a Zionist but either a post-Zionist or one who wishes so to diminish Israel of its Jewish identity/character. It is part of the new multi-cultural one-state approach – a state of all its citizens and Jews are nothing really special or rather everyone else in addition to Jews is just as good.

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