Otzma Yehudit Chairman MK Itamar Ben Gvir on Monday joined a meeting of the Likud faction in the Knesset to pitch to the members his law amending the current version of the Law of return.
The amendment introducing only one change in the text of the law, adding the word “Ka’halacha” (according to Orthodox Jewish law) to the word “Yehudi” (Jewish).
The explanatory memorandum to the bill states that “for many years, the Knesset has refrained from defining the type of conversion that would be recognized in immigration to Israel under the Law of Return. As is well known, the Lubavitcher Rebbe fought hard to amend this law, and for a clear definition of halachic conversion.”
The wording of the Law of return has led to many debates among Israeli rabbis about the need for its amendment and to give it a clearer definition of “who is a Jew.” Over the years, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Ztz’l worked hard to amend the law, starting as early as 1959, when then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion surveyed rabbis on this matter. The Rebbe replied in a long and detailed letter, saying:
“According to the Torah and the tradition of the generations that live to this day, a Jew – or in a different style but equal meaning – anyone belonging to the people of Israel, is only one who was born from a Jewish mother or was converted in an accurate manner of giyur, the details of which are explained in the books of halachic rulings of our people, the house of Israel, from generation to generation, to the Shulchan Aruch.
“The aforesaid is in full force not only concerning a child whose parents or someone else declares their desire to register him as a Jew but also regarding anyone who declares himself as wishing to change his status and situation in order to be included in Klal Yisrael – that such a statement is meaningless unless he has exercised the order of conversion which is appropriate to the tradition as detailed in the book of Shulchan Aruch, ibid.”
(Igrot Kodesh Vol. 18 Letter 6/1954)
The Likud faction has decided to allow its members to vote their conscience on the Ben Gvir Bill, and so the indefatigable MK (The Jewish Press’ Man of the Year 5781: The Indefatigable MK Itamar Ben-Gvir) distributed at the opening of the debate copies of a speech by Menachem Begin—the Likud’s most honored founder—who supported amending the law.
Ben Gvir told the Likud MKs: “Now, it’s not just Menachem Begin, it’s also Yitzhak Shamir, David Levy, this amendment basically belongs to all the founding fathers of the Likud movement.” He warned that if his bill is not passed, Israel and the Jewish people would face the danger of assimilation: “Understand what great harm has already been inflicted on the Jewish people,” he said. “We already have 100,000 assimilated people.” He warned that not passing the bill would also mean future discrimination against secular Jews when the Haredim and the Modern Orthodox resort to creating genealogies of accepted Jewish origins.
“In the end, most of the Likud voters are traditional people, they are people who want Judaism, they are people who believe that there must be no assimilation,” Ben Gvir continued. “My proposal has been signed before me by Menachem Begin, and I think that both for that reason, and for the integrity of our bloc, we need to be united – let not anyone come tomorrow and say, ‘Oh, this bill does not appeal to me, and it is not to my liking, and here I won’t go.”
In 1970, following discussions in the courts about the Judaism of some of the immigrants to Israel, the NRP faction (that later became Habayit Hayehudi – DI) submitted a proposal to amend the law. Following this, section 4B of the law was amended to say: “For the purposes of this law, a ‘Jew’ is a person who was born to a Jewish mother or converted, and is not a member of another religion.”
According to Ben Gvir, the biggest threat to the Jewish character of Israel is the fact that the legislator has yet to define the word “conversion” in the Law of Return, to avoid a rift with World Jewry, many of whom belong to the Conservative and Reform movements. As long as this is the case, he argued, there’s always the danger that the Supreme Court would rule that Reform conversions also qualify – and usher the deterioration of Orthodox halacha in Israel.