What was the Jewish Law of Return to Israel?
On July 5, 1950, the Israeli Knesset passed the Law of Return, fulfilling the dream of Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s founder. Herzl experienced anti-Semitism in Europe and saw its effects in many countries. He saw that there was only one solution: the mass immigration of Jews to a land that they could call their own.
The law begins with a few simple words that defined Israel?s central purpose:
- Every Jew has the right to immigrate to this country ...
The State of Israel was established for the very purpose of repatriating the Jewish people from the Diaspora, to enable the "Ingathering of the Exiles", to give every Jew anywhere in the world the option to return to the land of his fathers. Two thousand years of wandering were officially over.
The Law of Return (and related Law of Citizenship) states that every Jew in the world has the inherent right to settle in Israel as an automatic citizen; it emphasizes the purpose of Israel as a homeland for all Jews. The law does not attempt to define the term Jew, which has caused controversy in Israel from time to time. A 1970 amendment accords the right to immigrate to Israel to non-Jews who are either children or grandchildren of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew or the spouse of a child or grandchild of a Jew. The amendment was intended to accept in Israel families, mainly from Eastern Europe, where mixed marriages were abundant.
There are exceptions under the law, if a Jew has converted to another religion, or if the person posed an imminent danger to public health, state security, or the Jewish people as a whole. Terrorists are not entitled to "return", even if they were Jewish.Others, non-Jewish, who want to settle in Israel, whether Arab or from any other origin, may do so if thry meet the requirements set forth in the Law of Entry to Israel (1952) and the Law of Citizenship (1952), regarding naturalization. These requirements are similar to the immigration laws of most countries.
The main criticism raised against the Law of Return is that is discriminates against Arabs and especially against Palestinian refugees who wish to return to their former homes in Israel. This argument has no basis; obviously there is no sense in inviting any Arab who so desires to immigrate at will into Israel, the Jewish State which was established for the Jewish People in accordance with the UN Resolution 181, and by virtue of the right of the Jewish People to self determination. The bestowal of the "right of return" to Israel to non-Jews or to persons without a Jewish relative is illogical and contradicts the principal purpose of setting up a Jewish State as prescribed by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the League of Nations Mandate of 1922, and the UN Resolution of November 1947. The Law of Return is central to what the State of Israel stands for. Proposing to open Israel to immigration by any Arab is a disguised way of proposing the extinction of Israel.
Ever since its establishment, Israel has reiterated that it is a Jewish and democratic state. The Law of Return and the Law on Citizenship reflect the tension that exists in Israel between Israel's desire to be a Jewish state, a state of the entire Jewish people, and at the same time its desire to be a democratic state.
Controversy also exists over the Law of Return with respect to its wording among those who are favor retaining the law, because of the "Who is a Jew?" issue relating to the law. There are differing approaches to this subject among Israeli and Diaspora Jews, in terms of defining a Jew for the purpose of the Law of Return. There is also a lively debate over the meaning of the terms "Jewish State" and "State of the Jews."
Discussion around the law and its wording constantly reappears on private and public agendas in Israel and the Diaspora. The Knesset has repeatedly debated proposals to amend the Law of Return, and it has indeed been amended a number of times over the years. These modifications reflect the changes that have taken place in Israeli society and the shifts taking place in political dialogue both inside Israel itself, as well as between Israel and the Diaspora. The present law also constitutes an expression of permanent trends, as well as of the Israeli legislative system's ability to adapt itself to changing circumstances.