Tampering with the Law of Return

Interior Minister Avraham Poraz this week announced that his department will not automatically grant Israeli citizenship, as the Law of Return stipulates, to those who convert to Judaism in Israel. In his opinion, many take advantage of their conversion to secure citizenship, without any real desire to become a part of the Jewish people. The minister’s statement was based on a legal opinion submitted by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein. It is aimed, among others, at the community of foreign workers whom he wants to prevent from getting citizenship by disingenuous means.

However, Poraz wants to make it easier, by means of amendments to the laws governing citizenship and entry into Israel, for those candidates who live here, whose bond with Zionism is clear and whose contribution to the country is proved in the cultural, sporting or business spheres. If there have been any cases where the automatic link between a person’s Judaism and his request for Israeli citizenship – a link that has existed since the state was founded – has been abused, then this is unacceptable.

It does not seem fitting, however, that Poraz, who is committed to separating state and religion, should use the pressing need to correct an unacceptable wrong to revolutionize the entire issue of citizenship. It is almost universally accepted that the Law of Return is a fundamental part of the unwritten Israeli constitution. It is a law that cannot be amended lightly. It should not be subjected to far reaching changes by internal regulations without the legislature and the public being given a chance to have their say before any final decisions are made.

The specific changes that Poraz has proposed also seem problematic. If Poraz gets his way, the status of a convert who was converted in Israel will be inferior to one who underwent orthodox conversion overseas. Moreover, by focusing on converts from third world countries and by adopting “a more lenient and less suspicious approach toward applicants with citizenship in a developed country, the minister creates an ugly impression of ethnic and economic discrimination.

On the other hand, one cannot ignore the fact that Israel today is not the same country it was when the Law of Return was legislated. The presence of tens of thousands of foreign workers, many of whom have children – some born outside, some here – demands modern and creative thinking. It is not acceptable that, because of outdated opinions and bureaucratic anachronisms, the state should abuse entire families that are growing up as part of Israeli society and living a completely Israeli lifestyle. It is not acceptable to force these people to fight, sometimes for endless years, for their legal status.

The Citizenship Law, which regulates the naturalization of foreigners in Israel, undoubtedly needs updating to be as efficient and humanitarian as possible. There is no reason why an improved and updated Citizenship Law cannot solve most of the practical problems caused by the difficulties and restrictions of the Law of Return. One issue that could be addressed is that of long-term residents of Israel who have tied their futures to the country’s culture and language. The Law of Return, because of its uniqueness, because it defines the identity of the State of Israel, and because of its sweeping and irreversible resolution, should not be changed for such ephemeral purposes

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