Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Law of Return

On July 5th, 1950, corresponding to the 20th of Tammuz, the Israeli Knesset unanimously passed the “Law of Return ”(LoR). The timing of the bill’s passage was intended to coincide with the yahrzeit of Zionist visionary Theodore Herzl, who died on the 20th of Tammuz, 1904.

With the shadow of the Holocaust still looming over the nascent State of Israel, the LoR granted automatic citizenship to any Jew of any nationality. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion claimed that the LoR merely re-asserted a historic fact: “it affirms that this right is inherent from the very fact of being a Jew…This right precedes the state. Its source is to be found in the historic and never broken connection between the Jewish people and the homeland.”

Any Jew born in Israel, or anyone who immigrated prior to the passage of the LoR was deemed to be an automatic Israeli citizen.

The LoR gave power to the Minister of Immigration (now the Minister of the Interior) to withhold automatic citizenship if the applicant is “engaged in activity directed against the Jewish people,” or the applicant can endanger public health or national security. A 1954 amendment to the LoR added “a person with a criminal past, likely to endanger public welfare.”

While the LoR seems pretty unambiguous, reflecting the values of a people targeted for death a mere few years earlier, questions arose as to the definition of “a Jew.” What proof of Jewishness is needed in order to apply? This has proven to be an enormous issue for decades. In 1970, the LoR was amended, providing LoR rights to children and grandchildren of Jews, and the spouses of a Jew, a Jew’s child, or a Jew’s grandchild (even if they are not considered Jewish). The LoR would exclude someone who had been a Jew and voluntarily changed his or her religion. The 1970 amendments to the LoR defined “Jew” as a person born to a Jewish mother, or someone who converted to Judaism and does not identify with any other religion. Those granted citizenship via the LoR are not necessarily registered as Jews for other contexts.

Israel, like other countries, also allows citizenship through the naturalization process. Those who do not qualify for automatic citizenship via the LoR, can still become full Israeli citizens.

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