Amending the Law of Return: Proposals Ignite Controversy

Reigniting a heated controversy that has raged in Israel and in Diaspora communities throughout the world, two Orthodox members of the Knesset have4 proposed amendments to the Law Of Return.

The proposed amendments to the law, which was passed in July 1950 granting all Jews the right to immigrate to Israel, was also the subject of a heated exchange this week among members of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Executive.

The latest proposals were made amid an ongoing debate about the large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to halachah, or traditional Jewish law.

According to a recently released Interior Ministry report, more than 110,000 non-Jews have some of Israel since 1989, representing some 20 percent of all olim from the former Soviet Union in that period.

The Absorption Ministry estimates that the number will continue to increase slightly in the coming years.

The amendments were introduced this week by Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party and Avraham Ravitz of the Degal HaTorah Party.

The first amendment seeks to abolish the “grandparent clause,” which in 1970 was added to the Law of Return to allow the non-Jewish grandchildren of Jewish grandparents to immigrate to Israel.

The second amendment would bar those who convert to Judaism in Israel from bringing the rest of their non-Jewish family to the country.

Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, who is strongly opposed to abolishing the grandparent clause amendment, pointed out in a recent newspaper interview that no more than 2 percent of all olim would be affected by such amendments.

“These are negligible numbers, and anyone who thinks that the amendment will solve the problem of non-Jewish olim from the former Soviet Union is deluding himself,” Tsaban was quoted as saying by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

He added that although converts should not have an automatic right to bring over the rest of their families, he would prefer that the issue be dealt with by the Supreme Court, rather than by an amendment to the Law Of Return.

On Monday, the Jewish Agency’s Executive began a series of discussions on this issue.

Avraham Burg, acting chairman of the Agency, reiterated his position against any changes to the Law Of Return.

“Any alteration would have a profound effect on Israel’s society and its relationship with Diaspora Jewry,” he told the Executive. “Those who want to touch the Law Of Return are themselves shooting immigration in the head.”

Earlier attempts to change the law have provoked outrage among Diaspora Jews, especially attempts to deny recognition of conversions performed by non- Orthodox rabbis abroad.

Yehiel Leket, chairman of the Agency’s youth aliyah department, echoed Burg’s position. He said the Zionist movement remains opposed to any changes in the law.

Given the low number of people who would be affected by the proposed changes, he said, the issue does not constitute a national problems.

In contrast, Uri Gordon, chairman of the Agency’s Immigration Department, strongly opposed that view, saying he is “against bringing gentiles to Israel.”

The controversy over non-Jews in Israel has also spilled over to the related issues of circumcision and the recognition of conversions in Israel not performed by the Orthodox establishment.

Tsaban disclosed in the Ha’aretz interview that the Ministry of Absorption has contributed $10,000 to “Keren Habrit,” which provides subsidized circumcisions to adult immigrants who are refused the services of the Religious Affairs Ministry.

The fund was established last year by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel in response to the plight of olim who ran into difficulties with the Orthodox establishment and who could not afford the high costs of adult circumcision.

According to Amir Shacham, the director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, the demand for the fund’s services reaches into the thousands.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, a Conservative rabbi and mohel who heads Keren Habrit, said in an interview that non-Jewish children from abroad who were adopted by Israeli parents were also refused circumcisions by the Orthodox establishment on the grounds that their parents were not maintaining an observant life style.

He also said the tendency of the Orthodox establishment to convert as few olim as possible creates great hardships for them.

The only Reform and Conservative conversions now recognized by the Interior Ministry are those performer abroad.

But the Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a petition filed by the Israel Religious Action Center and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, demanding that non-Orthodox conversions in Israel be recognized as well.

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