Should Non-Jews "Return" under the Law of Return?

by Mordecai Plaut

Should Non-Jews "Return" under the Law of Return?

by Mordecai Plaut

Did you know that more non-Jews can immigrate to the State of Israel than Jews under the Law of Return?

Did you know that if the faithful shelichim sent out by the Jewish State to the four corners of the world do their job well, the State of Israel will barely be Jewish?

The Law of Return has served whatever purpose it originally had, and the time has definitely come to change it fundamentally, or else to repeal it entirely.

Fifty years ago, when the State of Israel started out and established its important Law of Return, the world Jewish community was more sharply defined and more homogeneous. The line between Jew and non-Jew was fairly clear, and almost all Jews were bound by common ties including language and culture. Even if they were not observant themselves, most were versed in the Jewish heritage. More importantly, even though there was a broad range of interpretations of what "Jewishness" means, there was substantial agreement about who was Jewish.

However, fifty years of widespread intermarriage, on top of progressive cultural assimilation to the surrounding non-Jewish societies, have blurred the lines between Jew and non-Jew. Secular Jews want to minimize the dividing line or to do away with it altogether, but they are still a small minority. The vast majority of Jews do want to maintain the boundary, and the core of religious Jews will adamantly preserve the traditional line that is drawn by halacha. Nonetheless, the gaps are getting greater and the issue is becoming acute.

The reality is that even the nature of intermarriage has changed. According to a sociologist, an intermarriage is any case of a born Jew marrying someone not a born Jew. This is a "scientific" definition and ignores the difference between a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew who converted as opposed to a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew who did not covert, let alone the differences in the type of conversion (whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform). Whereas in the past most intermarriages were between a Jew and a converted non-Jew, today most intermarriages are between Jews and unconverted partners.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the unconverted spouse does not accept any sort of Jewish identity, and continues to identify as a non-Jew, whether secular or religious (usually some form of Christianity in the West). Though their tie to their Jewish spouse may be strong (or not) their tie to the Jewish people is minimal or even nonexistent. Yet these unconverted spouses of Jews are fully eligible to come to Israel under the Law of Return.

The statistics show that such families have a very weak Jewish tie. 72% of the children of such marriages are raised as non-Jews, yet they too are entitled to all the rights and privileges bestowed by the Law of Return.

But the Law of Return is very generous and it does not stop with this. The non-Jewish spouse is also entitled to bring along his or her entire family: mother, father, brothers, sisters and their families. Entire clans have come from Russia numbering dozens of people -- all of whom say openly that they have no connection to Judaism or the Jewish people (and in some cases they are even antisemitic).

According to Mark Kupovetsky, a demographer at the Jewish studies program at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, in 1999 there were about 332,000 Jews left in Russia, out of its total population of some 147 million. This figure is based on the number of people who described themselves as Jewish in the last Soviet census, with projections since then based on demographic tools available.

However, his estimate of those who are eligible to go to Israel under its Law of Return -- though not as precise -- is much, much higher: over a million.

Jews and those with Jewish blood have intermarried freely in Russia now for three generations. They are all over the place -- as the antisemites are charging.

For example, among the current and recent national leaders, there is Sergei V. Kiriyenko, the former prime minister (for several months last year), who uses his non-Jewish mother's name but had a Jewish father. He is not Jewish by anyone's definition in Israel (only American Reform Jews consider him Jewish, not the Israeli Reform Jews), and moreover he certainly has no special allegiance to Israel or to the Jewish people, yet he would easily be admitted under the current Law of Return and be entitled to vote in the upcoming elections (if he hurries) and get full financial aid from the Ministry of Absorption.

Yevgeny M. Primakov, another Russian prime minister, also has some Jewish roots, as do former Kremlin aides Boris Y. Nemtsov and Anatoly B. Chubais, as well as Yegor T. Gaidar, another former prime minister. Grigory A. Yavlinksy, the head of the Yabloko Party is also part Jewish as is one of the most strident and well-known and antisemitic nationalists, Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky. The very well-known financier Boris Berezovsky is also a Jew and even once held an Israeli passport but he recently registered his infant son in the Russian Orthodox faith.

These, one could assume, are not even the tip of the iceberg.

In 1997, the latest year for which such figures were so far released, 27% (14,851 of 54,600) of those who came from all the states of the former Soviet Union were not of Jewish extraction. This means that they are religiously, ethnically and in every other way not connected to the Jewish people. Even though one can argue that the husband or wife of a Jew has some sort of connection to the Jewish people (even if a negative one according to halacha) his or her relatives do not. In many cases they are even antisemitic, but are just looking for a way out to a materially better life. Given the economic realities of 1999, the mere fact of them coming does not show that they have any affinity whatsoever for Jews or the Jewish people.

According to the official figures of the Absorption Ministry, in 1997 just over half of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union were halachically Jewish, but this probably does not fully account for the widespread forgery that is known to take place.

According to Professor Sergei della Pergola of Hebrew University, one of the recognized experts on worldwide Jewish demography, there were only about a half million Jews left in all the current C.I.S. in 1999. However, the number entitled to come to Israel under the Law of Return was, again, several times as much -- at least two million. According to a figure cited at a report of a recent conference on Jewish demography, a study by a student of Professor della Pergola found that there were 15 million (!) non-Jews who were eligible to come to Israel just before the Soviet Union broke up in 1990. "Only" several hundred thousand of these have come so far.

The former Soviet Union is the second or third largest concentration of Jews outside of Israel -- though it is the first or second largest concentration of those eligible to come to Israel under the Law of Return. What about the largest concentration of Jews outside of Eretz Yisroel today? That is, what about America?

In response to a question posed by veteran Jewish activist Yigal Hayehudi at a 1999 conference on "Topics in Jewish Demographics in Israel and the Diaspora," Professor della Pergola said, "I have a surprise for you. The situation in the former Soviet Union is not unique. If I had been asked to lecture on the Jews of America, I would give a picture that is not all that different. . . "

What is the situation in the United States?

The latest and best figures that are available are from the National Jewish Population Study that was conducted in 1990.

According to this large study (which was not conducted with the Law of Return in mind), there are over 8 million people who are related to a Jew, but only about 3 million who have had some sort of Jewish education. These figures are based on statistical projections and are subject to errors.

Nonetheless, it would appear that in the United States as well, at least twice as many people are eligible to come to Israel as are Jewish by any standard.

Though it may be argued that the mere fact of coming, for someone from America, does indicate an affinity for the Jewish or Israeli people, this cannot be guaranteed in general, and the situation there may also change.

Moreover, this welcome could arguably be extended to any person who comes to Israel from a wealthy society, and not just those with some sort of Jewish blood relationship. Yet it is generally understood in all countries of the world, that immigrants must "prove" themselves. There are residency requirements and often examinations to pass, unlike the privileges granted by the Law of Return that are unconditional.

When it was originally passed, the Law of Return declared that the State of Israel was the State of the Jews, since that law provided that every Jew in the world was potentially an instant immigrant and citizen.

There is no longer a consensus that the State of Israel is a Jewish state. Furthermore, the Law of Return itself, since today it applies to many more universally acknowledged non-Jews than to Jews, does not even declare that the State of Israel is a state of the Jews.

The Law of Return is archaic and outmoded, and has lost the content and justification that it originally had. Discarding it should be a no-brainer.

Note: The conference on Jewish demography referred to in the article was reported in Yated Hashavua, 5 Shvat, 5759, p. 18.

Related essay: No More than 4 Million Halachic American Jews

Related essay: The Demography and the Reality of the Jewish People NJPS 2000-2001

Related essay: There Are Only 2,300,000 Hardcore American Jews

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