The Law of Return

An immigration policy to ensure a Jewish majority in the State of Israel.

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Non-Orthodox Conversion

Israeli History QuizThe question of whether non-Orthodox converts should be included in the Law of Return has also been debated for decades. Since the 1970 amendment, the ultra-Orthodox parties in Knesset have advocated limiting the Law of Return to Orthodox converts. 

In 1988, Yitzhak Shamir tried to convince the ultra-Orthodox parties to join his coalition by offering them the prospect of amending the Law of Return to include only those converts who converted to Judaism "according to Jewish law." But leaders of Jewish Federations in America understood this to de-legitimate the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism. They threatened that American Jewish support of Israel cannot be taken for granted, and Shamir withdrew his offer. 

Then in 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone who converted to Judaism in a non-Orthodox conversion outside the State of Israel is included in the Law of Return. Orthodox leaders, particularly the Israeli rabbinate, were outraged at the Supreme Court's ruling. But the ruling was only a partial success for liberal Judaism, because it still did not include those who converted in non-Orthodox ceremonies in Israel. Because of this technicality, many non-Jews living in Israel who want to convert through non-Orthodox rabbis are forced to become "leaping converts" who study for conversion in Israel, convert with non-Orthodox rabbis abroad, and then return to Israel.

In addition, the Israeli Rabbinate, which has a monopoly on marriage and divorce between Jews in the state, does not accept non-Orthodox converts as Jewish. As a result, non-Orthodox converts admitted to Israel under the Law of Return cannot marry or divorce in the country. In recent years, the Israeli Rabbinate has even questioned the legitimacy of many Orthodox conversions performed abroad.

Immigrants from Ethiopia and the Former Soviet Union

In the last two decades, some important questions regarding the Law of Return have come to the fore as large groups of immigrants have arrived in Israel from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union

The Falash Mura, who claim to be descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity several generations ago, have been seeking to immigrate to Israel for two decades. Israel has already admitted thousands of Falash Mura, both under the Law of Return and, if they do not qualify for admission under the Law of Return, for humanitarian reasons. Yet thousands more live in camps in Addis and Gondar, and their eligibility for Aliyah has not been determined by Israel's government.

Over a million people from the Former Soviet Union have immigrated to Israel since 1989. Though these immigrants have Jewish ancestry, many are not Jewish according to Orthodox (and in many cases even liberal) interpretations of Jewish law, and some do not identify as Jews. Some Israelis, concerned that these immigrants threaten the Jewish character of the state, argue that Israel should limit immigration from the FSU. Others argue that Israel needs to make conversion more accessible, and work to ease the integration of immigrants from the FSU into Israeli society.

In the wake of these controversies, Israelis debate possible reforms to the Law of Return, and what it means for Israel to be a homeland for Jews all over the world--not only a place to which Jews can freely immigrate, but also a country that can successfully integrate the diverse Jews that seek a home there.

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.