The Law of Return

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

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"The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews and the ingathering of exiles from all countries of their dispersion," asserts Israel's Declaration of Independence. The 1950 Law of Return codified this mission to gather Jews from around the world by granting them the right to settle in Israel and gain automatic citizenship.

Jews & Arabs

One of the major goals of the Law of Return is to ensure a Jewish majority in Israel. Today, over 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab, and this number could continue to rise. The Law of Return offsets the high Arab birth rate by enabling the naturalization of thousands of Jewish immigrants to Israel each year.
law of return laws
However, critics argue that because the Law of Return favors Jews it is undemocratic and, according to a more extreme position, racist, and must be replaced with a more egalitarian immigration policy. 

Many pro-Palestinian advocates criticize the Law of Return as discriminatory, because Israel does not grant a similar right of return to Palestinian refugees who wish to return to their former homes in Israel, after being displaced in the 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six-Day War. Today, the number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants is estimated to exceed four million. Many Israelis worry that granting the Palestinian right of return would lead to an Arab majority in Israel and the eventual dissolution of the Jewish state. The right of return has been a contentious topic of negotiation in the Israeli-Arab peace talks.

Who Is a Jew?

There are also disputes concerning who exactly is included in the Law of Return, since the 1950 law did not define who is a Jew for the purposes of immigration. 

The first major challenge to the law came in 1962 with the Brother Daniel case. Brother Daniel, born Oswald Rufeisen, was a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism during the Holocaust. He later became a Carmelite monk, and in this position saved many Jews during the Holocaust. When Brother Daniel applied to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that he was ineligible because the Law of Return does not include Jews who practice another religion.

Then in 1969, the Israeli Supreme Court in the Shalit case ruled that a child born in Israel to a Jewish Israeli father and non-Jewish mother could be registered as Jewish in Israel's Population Registry. Since this ruling runs counter to the traditional Jewish legal definition of a Jew--someone born to a Jewish mother--tremendous controversy ensued, which led to the 1970 amendment of the Law of Return. 

This amendment expanded the right of return to include the child or grandchild of a Jew, and the spouse of a child or grandchild of a Jew. For the purposes of this law, "Jew" was defined as someone who has a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism, and is not a member of another religion.

By including the children and grandchildren of Jews, the 1970 amendment is reminiscent of the Nazis' Nuremberg Laws. Any person who would have been targeted by the Nazis for being Jewish, the amended law implies, deserves the right to safe haven in Israel. 

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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.