Volodymyr Zelensky is an inspirational and courageous figure. His single-minded focus on his country’s survival at great personal risk reveals him to be a Ukrainian patriot, even as his knowledge of the Holocaust is a little deficient. And as a Jew, he could come to Israel tomorrow and declare himself an Israeli citizen. Not only Zelensky himself but his Gentile wife and baptized children could also become Israeli citizens tomorrow. It is not that they would – but they could.
Similarly, Agata Kornhauser-Duda is the first lady of Poland, married to Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, a practicing Catholic. She too could arrive in Israel tomorrow and declare herself to be an Israeli citizen, along with her husband, parents and daughter, because her paternal grandfather was a Jew. Her Gentile parents could come as well.
There are fine people whose connection to Judaism is that they carry within them drops of Jewish blood, do not at all identify with Israel or the Jewish people, and yet, according to the Law of Return, are eligible for Israeli citizenship as Jews.
That, in a word, is insane.
Compounding the insanity is the havoc this clause has knowingly caused to Israel’s Jewish character. We would not be arguing over diluting the traditional standards for conversion – mocking halacha in the process – if we were not embracing hundreds of thousands of halachic Gentiles who bear but a tangential connection to the Jewish people. And with the influx of Ukrainian refugees – not the Gentile refugees who are looking for a temporary refuge but those refugees of Jewish descent that are similarly claiming Israeli citizenship – we are dealing with the existing problem by exacerbating it. Undoubtedly, we could find tens of millions of people across the globe that have Jewish ancestry, even a Jewish grandparent. And what will be of Israel, the only Jewish state?
Certainly, part of the campaign to secularize Israel, reform conversion laws, and relax public Shabbat restrictions on transportation, commerce and entertainment, is a consequence of the arrival in Israel of hundreds of thousands of halachic Gentiles. While waving the magic wand of conversion over them – immersing them in a mikveh without requiring acceptance of mitzvot – sounds attractive to some, it doesn’t solve the problem of secularization. (Will we soon see Ukrainian refugees of Jewish descent taken from the airport straight to a mikveh – and then to their hotels?) The Jewish character of Israel will be further adulterated.
Consider: about twenty minutes from my home is a Christian church that caters to the immigrant population that arrived in the 1990’s and 2000’s. I hesitate to name the church because I do not want to call attention to it in any way. Their membership has grown from dozens of families in the early 1990’s to many hundreds. They have built a new building. They have in the last decade or so added branches in Rishon Letzion and Ashkelon. They conduct their services on Shabbat (both as Israel’s official day of rest and probably so as not to draw too much attention to themselves) and have simultaneous translation of the services into Russian, English, Yiddish and Romanian. The church also engages in social welfare work, helping their immigrant families find homes, jobs, education, etc.
It is indisputable that most of their families came here as beneficiaries of the Law of Return, as the offspring of Jews. It is equally indisputable that they are practicing Christians who might even allow themselves to be dunked in a mikveh if there were tangible benefits to being a recognized Jew in the land of Israel. But that is also insane. What interest of the Jewish people is advanced by pretending that Gentiles are quasi-Jews, “traditional” but not religious?
It is long past time to amend the Law of Return to conform to sanity and promote the true interests of the Jewish people dwelling in Zion. While most of the fireworks in the past fifty years have centered on the conversion clause – accepting as citizens Jews who have “converted,” even if not according to halacha – this has applied to relatively few people, even as a change would infuriate the non-Orthodox movements in America. But the clause that vests the rights of a Jew in the State of Israel “to the grandchild of a Jew” and “the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew” has caused more spiritual harm and created more havoc and social disunity than did the conversion clause. It was adopted at the same time as the conversion loophole (1970) but somehow flew under the radar.
To be sure, the text of the law disqualifies anyone “who is not a member of another religion,” but aside from celebrated cases (like Brother Daniel) who would really know? Who investigates? Are the current group of refugees of Jewish descent interrogated as to whether or not they practice Orthodox Christianity? The number of Russian Orthodox churches in Israel alone would indicate that a large number of olim from the great wave of Aliya did not renounce their prior faith but brought it with them to Israel. It must be underscored that this is not meant to exclude any Jew with a Jewish mother regardless of his or her level of observance. Nor is it a comment on the propriety of temporarily admitting other Ukrainians as refugees.
There are always those who will contend that we should grant Israeli citizenship to descendants of one Jewish grandfather because that was Hitler’s criterion for determining Jewish status for his malignant ends. But Hitler, may his name be blotted out, was a genocidal murderer. He was not a posek. He doesn’t decide questions of Jewish law – not about Shabbat, Kashrut, conversion or Jewish status. And to allow him that privilege is to award him a posthumous victory over the Torah.
We must return to sanity. Approximately one-quarter of Israeli citizens today are not Jewish and most do not want to be. What is the tipping point at which we realize that Israel is only nominally a Jewish state – when one-third are not Jewish? For when we reach one-half, it will not be a Jewish state at all, and this without being conquered by any hostile country.
The Law of Return is one of the crown jewels of the State of Israel. It is a declaration that no Jew in the world is homeless and that every Jew has a place and can automatically become a citizen in the land of Israel. It is a bulwark against the persecution of Jews and it is an invitation to all Jews to come home and build a Jewish state. It is as fundamental to Israel’s self-definition as is Israel’s Declaration of Independence. But just like, as US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once stated, “the constitution is not a suicide pact” but must be interpreted “with a little practical wisdom,” so too the Law of Return is not a suicide pact and should not be interpreted as such.
So it is high time that the Law of Return applied to Jews, and only Jews. For those remarkable people of Jewish descent – whether they had a Jewish grandfather, or are descendants of Conversos, or were otherwise part of a hidden community – who want to come to Israel and live full Jewish lives, the road to sincere conversion is open and welcoming. If it isn’t, then we should make it open and welcoming so that we may gather in all our exiles and bring closer the redemption.