Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana (Yamina) with outgoing Minister Yaakov Avitan (Shas), June 14, 2021.

Minister of Religious Services Matan Kahana (Yamina) Reshet Bet radio Sunday morning that the grandchildren’s clause of the amended Law of Return of 1970 should be repealed.

“Israel is strong enough that if a grandson of a Jew suffers from anti-Semitism anywhere in the world, we will bring him to Israel even without this clause,” Minister Kahana said.

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The Law of Return was originally passed on July 5, 1950, giving Jews the right to relocate to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship. Section 1 of the Law of Return declares that “every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh.”. In 1970, the right of entry and settlement was extended to people with one Jewish grandparent and a person who is married to a Jew, whether or not they are considered Jewish under the halacha in its Orthodox interpretations.

Until the end of the 1980s, this section had little use and did not provoke public debate. However, with the arrival of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, many non-Jewish immigrants were permitted to acquire Israeli citizenship as “grandchildren of a Jew.” This raised demands to change the Law of Return to reduce the immigration of Gentiles, who allegedly saw immigration to the State of Israel as an opportunity to improve their economic situation using their entitlement to an “absorption basket,” tax relief, and incentive grants to purchase an apartment.

The late Ruth Gavison, who was an Israeli expert on human rights, Professor of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, recipient of the Israel Prize, and leader of efforts to bridge secular and religious Jewish societies, wrote in 2006 (In the Absence of a Vision the Nation Shall Fray: a supreme goal for Israel and its derivatives):

It isn’t clear why the right to immigrate should also include distant family members of a Jew who have no affiliation with Judaism themselves. … Thoughts of such a reduction in the Law of Return can stem from a variety of components of the supreme goal.
First, based on the commitment to civic equality in the country – not to prefer immigrants who have no real affinity for Judaism over other immigrants, especially those who have roots in the country.
Second, based on the desire to maintain a well-developed, modern, and prosperous society in Israel.
Third, and this is marginal – there are among those entitled to the benefits of the Law of Return some who act blatantly against the interests of the state. The desire to maintain a state that protects public order and the human rights of all requires not allowing such elements to enter the country by virtue of a right.
Fourth, and most importantly, a trend of reducing the right to aliyah under the Law of Return can also be based on the desire to strengthen the state as a place where the Jewish people exercise their right to self-determination. The eligibility framework should be applied to all who want to immigrate to Israel in order to live a wholesome Jewish life here – and should not apply to others … But there is no place for granting eligibility by force of the law of Return to one who has no interest in Jewish life and is even sometimes a believing member of another religious or national community.

On Sunday morning, Minister Kahana appeared to have approached the issue from a radically different point of view. Discussing the conversion reform he is pushing in the Knesset (Haredim Slam Religious Services Minister Kahana for Allowing Local Conversions), Kahana said that there are about 450,000 people in Israel whose father or grandfather were Jews and according to Jewish halacha are not recognized as Jews, and as he put it, not enough has been done to date to bring them closer to conversion according to halacha.

“There’s a broad consensus in the coalition that this needs to be addressed in a halachic way. It is the mission of our generation to bring these people closer to conversion according to halacha. Based on the coalition agreement, we will open up halachic conversions in Israel to city rabbis,” Kahana said.

“People are looking for real conversion, a certificate that shows that Israel recognizes their conversion. We can bring these people closer to Judaism. The system to date has not done enough to bring these people closer. If we bring significant change, we will be able to attract tens of thousands more converts according to halacha and bring them home to Judaism.”

On Friday, MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionism) issued harsh criticism of Kahana’s plan, saying it violated the commandment of loving the convert: “The conversion reform proposed by Minister Matan Kahana is the most despicable act that can be done to converts. Giving them a piece of paper with the symbol of the State of Israel, so they would think they are Jews, and then when they want to get married, they would find that it doesn’t work and it isn’t recognized – not by 40%, not by 50%, not even by 70% (meaning that as many as 70% of Israeli Jews, many more than just the Haredim, would not accept the conversions process being proposed by Kahana – DI).”

“A conversion that’s not acceptable to the vast majority of the people of Israel is simply not a conversion,” MK Rothman insisted.

This is not a story about Minister Kahana’s conversion reform bill, so we won’t debate MK Rothman’s assertion. We should, however, note that our own impression is that the new legislation hands control over the appointment of eligible city rabbis to convert in strictly Orthodox hands and that, in fact, two of the committee members would be selected by the Chief Rabbi, and one would most likely be Rabbi Haim Drukmen.

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David writes news at JewishPress.com.