Photo Credit: Adina Velman / Knesset Spokesperson's Office
MK Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina)

On Wednesday, MK Bezalel Smotrich will submit to the Knesset plenum a bill to repeal the grandson clause of the Law of Return.

In January 1970, in the wake of the “Who is a Jew” dispute in Israel, an IDF officer named Benjamin Shalit who married a non-Jew petitioned the High Court of Justice and demanded that the Interior Ministry register his children as Jews.

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The petition was accepted by a majority of five judges against four, the High Court ruled that the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is considered a Jew.

The National Religious Party (which begot Habayit Hayehudi which begot Yamina) demanded an amendment to the Law of Return and to prevent the recognition of anyone who is not a Jew according to Jewish law as a Jew.

In response, then Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira proposed a compromise according to which only the son of a Jewish mother or a convert will be considered a Jew, but the Law of Return will also apply to the spouse and children of a Jew, thus downgrading the value of Jewish law in deciding who may become a citizen of the Jewish State.

Following the proposal of MK Moshe Kol (Independent Liberals which disappeared a short while later), Shapira’s proposal also added recognition as a Jews of an individual whose grandfather was a Jew, or whose spouse is the grandson of a Jew.

The reason for the amendment regarding the grandson stems from the popularly held principle behind the Law of Return: to recognize as a Jew anyone whom the Nazis, in the Nuremberg Racial Laws of 1936, denounced as a Jew.

The Nuremberg Laws define as a Jew, among other things, a person who is descended from at least three grandparents who are complete Jews by race; or a mixed race citizen of the Reich who is descended from two completely Jewish grandparents.

Someone apparently intended to exceed the Nazi “demand” and recognize as a Jew even those against whom Nazi law would not discriminate as Jews – those who had only one Jewish grandfather.

The amended law was finally passed in the Knesset on March 10, 1970.

Russian Olim attend an event marking the 25th anniversary of the great Russian Aliya, December 24, 2015. / Hadas Parush/Flash90

MK Smotrich claimed this week: “The ‘grandson’s clause’ that was included in the Law of Return in the 1970 amendment was not in reference to the Nuremberg Laws. Look in all the annals of the Knesset, the committees and the plenum, and you will not find a trace of it. Even in many rulings of the High Court that discussed the rationale of this law, you will not find a trace of it.”

“Where did this story pop up from?” Smotrich asked and answered: “This is simply an invention of Amnon Rubinstein, who served as an MK at the time of the legislation, and decided that this is the reason…”

Note: I personally have many gripes against Amnon Rubinstein, who also served as a Supreme Court justice – but I find it hard to believe that he proposed an amendment to the law which he pulled out of his feverish brain.

Smotrich continued: “In the 1990s, with the welcomed waves of immigration from the Soviet Union, and to justify the immigration of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews, along with the million Jews who immigrated to Israel, the rationale of the Nazi racial laws was pulled up and fixed in the national consciousness. Just so no one would feels comfortable enough to appeal it. From there, the road to demagogic arguments was very short…”

Smotrich added: “We have a responsibility for the future of the Jewish people. For the future of its existence. That’s the story. No less. The State of Israel cannot afford huge assimilation rates as there are in the United States and Europe. There are already more than three hundred thousand non-Jewish immigrants in Israel. Unfortunately most of them do not convert. The continued importing to Israel of non-Jews who have no affiliation with Judaism, under the auspices of the grandson clause, may in future generations produce severe assimilation, jeopardize the continuity of the Jewish people, and abolish the Jewish majority and character of the state.”

“In the early 1990s, with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel, it was still possible to somehow justify the grandson clause,” Smotrich suggested. “Descendants of Jews who were assimilated under duress from the communist regime that persecuted Judaism virulently – and those descendants felt a real affinity for the Jewish people and their country and were part of the first waves of aliyah and were received here with great love and with open arms.”

“It is also very important to make an effort to convert them today, to complete the process, and for them to become Jews according to Halacha in order to prevent assimilation.

“But today, thirty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it can be determined with a high degree of certainty that anyone who felt a real affinity for the Jewish people and their state and sought to immigrate for Zionist motives had already done so. Today it is already migration for economic reasons that has almost nothing to do with Judaism and Zionism.”

And here the MK from the Yamina party landed a glove on the main opponent of his amendment: “Those for whom Judaism amounts to nothing more than cultural folklore, for whom assimilation in the halachic sense is just fine, can see the potential of the grandson clause to import Knesset mandates for his political party which is dripping hatred for the state’s Judaism. This is what the Israel Beiteinu party has done for many, many years in the Absorption Ministry.”

Israel Beiteinu controlled the Absorption Ministry for many terms, and in the opinion of many, including yours truly, has done a good job in absorbing many immigrants from all over the world – not just from Russia.

Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman raising a glass L’Chayim, June 2, 2016. / Yaakov Cohen/Flash90

Israel Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Liberman wrote an angry response to Smotrich’s proposed amendment: “I was shocked to find out that on Wednesday a bill by MK Bezalel Smotrich to repeal the Law of Return comes up in the Knesset. The exact same law that in the 15th Knesset was submitted by Rabbi Chaim Druckman (NRP).”

Liberman is obviously exaggerating: Smotrich is not trying to repeal the Law of Return, only amend it to correct an obvious problem. But politics is not the art of the accurate.

“There is no greater folly than raising this legislation at the present time, which will only add to the agitation and division among the citizens of Israel,” Liberman wrote. “Therefore, I call on MKs Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked to demand that Bezalel Smotrich remove his divisive initiative from the Knesset agenda immediately.”

It’s hard to disagree with Liberman on the timing of the Smotrich amendment, even while agreeing in principle with Smotrich on the need for the correction.

More than that, it is hard to imagine a move that would be more harmful to the Yamina party’s success story over the past month, when it appears to be siphoning more than ten seats from disappointed Likud voters. An attempt to keep potential immigrants out before the next election could erase the gleaming coating given by chairman Naftali Bennett to Yamina, which today is being portrayed as a sane right-wing party whose desire is to act effectively for the benefit of all the citizens who are struggling with the epidemic and the economic crisis.

But, of course, if anyone in Israeli politics can shoot himself in the foot inside his own tent, it is the heirs of the NRP on the right.

“The complications of the long and cursed exile certainly produce complexities and borderline cases,” Smotrich declared. “These are addressed in the first generation and in the possibility of subsequent generations to convert and immigrate to Israel as Jews. They justified, perhaps, a temporary extension of the right of return, with whose challenges we are required to face today with extensive efforts to convert. But it in no way justifies irresponsibility for the future of the Jewish people.”

Perhaps the Jewish people would agree to hold their worries about the future for a few months?

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