An increasing number of non-Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union to Israel is the motivation behind the proposed amendments to the Law of Return.
The Law of Return was originally legislated in 1950, and the ‘Grandchild Clause’ was added to the law in 1970 as clause 4a. It stated that “all the rights afforded to Jews according to this law…”, meaning the rights offered to olim (new immigrants) including citizenship, “are extended also to the child and grandchild of a Jew, the partners of Jews, their children’s partners, and their grandchildren’s partners – except for someone who willingly denounced their Jewish affiliation.” The law does not consider whether the Jewish grandparent in question is alive or if they too decided to immigrate to Israel. Immigrants seeking to move to Israel under this clause do not need to make any special request, but are granted citizenship automatically.
The idea behind the law – which was legislated when Golda Meir served as prime minister in 1970 – was that descendants of Jews, even if they themselves are not considered Jewish under Orthodox Jewish law (halacha), should enjoy a special status in the Jewish state. This amendment was the result of a political compromise that sought to reduce tensions after the ‘Shalit affair’ which had appeared before the Supreme Court earlier that year. In the ‘Shalit affair’, a Jew asked to have his children listed as Jewish despite the fact that his wife was not Jewish and therefore his children were not considered Jewish according to Orthodox halacha. As a political compromise, the Knesset amended the Law of Return to include the Grandchild Clause and allow the descendants of Jews to immigrate to Israel, while at the same time limiting the official definition of Jews in Israel to those whose mother was Jewish or those who had converted.
The Law of Return, and the Grandchild Clause, hold a central and symbolic role in defining Israel as a Jewish state. There are those who see the Grandchild Clause as an appropriate Zionistic response to the Nazi regime’s Nuremberg Laws that had designated anyone with a Jewish grandparent as Jewish. Former Education Minister Amnon Rubenstein even went as far as to say that if such a definition was enough to have a person killed, it should now serve to provide a home and rights to such individuals. It should be noted that many legislators at the time did not approve of such an analogy to the Nuremberg Laws and voiced concerns about assimilation and intermarriage.
The motivation to now minimize the Grandchild Clause, as delineated in section 126 of the coalition agreement with United Torah Judaism (UTJ) is a result of the increasing number of non-Jews who have immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union (FSU) under this clause. In 1990, 93.1% of immigrants from the FSU were Jewish (172,419 immigrants), in 2005 only 42% were Jewish (3,958) and by 2020 only 28.3% were Jewish (3,113) and the rest (7,898) are mostly defined as holding no religion (according to 2022 data from the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Knesset Research and Information Center). At the same time, the number of conversions has declined since 2016 (including conversions in the IDF) and now stand at 3,000 conversions a year – with only half of them for individuals from the FSU (1,506 conversions in 2021 according to IDI’s Biennial Statistical Report on Religion and State). This has led to increased concerns over intermarriage and assimilation, and to demands to limit aliya.
Another reason for section 126 in the coalition agreement is the fact that a significant portion of the new immigrants leave Israel soon after arriving in the country. Analysis of CBS data by IDI shows that 26% of Jewish immigrants from the FSU leave Israeli within a year of arrival and 46% within two years. Among non-Jewish FSU immigrants 24% leave within a year and 41% withing two years. This is significantly higher than immigrants from other countries where 2% of Jewish immigrants leave Israel within a year and 8% within two years, and among non-Jewish immigrants 8% leave within a year and 21% within two. There was also a doubling of immigration to Israel from 2017 after the “Passport Law” was passed, granting a passport (as well as immigrant benefits and healthcare) immediately upon receiving citizenship, as opposed to the previous law which only allowed this after an immigrant lived in Israel for a year and could prove residency. There is now proposed legislation seeking to repeal this 2017 law.
There are also those on the political Left who seek to limit the Grandchild Clause. They view it as discriminatory against Arab citizens of Israel whose relatives cannot immigrate so easily, and therefore, prefer to limit the existing law as a step towards greater equality.
In contrast to the views above, there are those who see the Grandchild Clause as a Zionist declaration honoring Israel’s standing as a Jewish state and as a symbol of its connection to the Jewish people in communities around the world. Furthermore, they view Judaism as more of a sociological definition – as opposed to a religious definition – therefore the descendants of Jews who choose to immigrate to Israel are considered to be a part of the Jewish people. A 2021 survey conducted by the 1,Million,Lobby, found that only 78% of respondents from the FSU said that they were sure that the Rabbinate would recognize their Judaism, but 94% of respondents said that they define themselves as Jewish. Additionally, there are elements on the political Right who support a more expansive Grandchild Clause to keep a demographic balance that favors Jewish Israelis.
There have been proposed compromises that would leave the Grandchild Clause as it is, but add elements such as a waiting period for citizenship, a loyalty declaration, basic Hebrew or required knowledge of Jewish history – or alternatively, service in the IDF. Another compromise proposed in the 2003 Gavison-Medan Covenant would limit the Grandchild Clause while simultaneously recognizing conversions by all Jewish communities, including those conducted by non-Orthodox movements (with transparency regarding the type of conversion conducted).
Section 126 of the coalition agreement does not present a balanced and fair solution for the descendants of Jews who live among us. This is especially true when coupled with section 125 of the agreement which bans recognition of private conversion even by recognized Jewish communities (Reform, Conservative or Orthodox).