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AJC head working with ‘Israeli friends’ to prevent changes to Law of Return

“We don't want anything to happen that could stop people from seeing Israel as their place of refuge,” says Ted Deutch.

American Jewish Committee CEO Ted Deutch. Credit: AJC.
American Jewish Committee CEO Ted Deutch. Credit: AJC.

American Jewish Committee CEO Ted Deutch said he is working with his Israeli friends to prevent the government in Jerusalem from changing the Law of Return.

Under the current law, an individual with a single Jewish grandparent is eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship.

“We want the Israeli government and our friends to understand that we will act to prevent anything from happening to cause rifts within Diaspora Jewry,” Deutch said. “We don’t want anything to happen that could stop people from seeing Israel as their place of refuge, especially now, during a period of heightened antisemitism.”

The former congressman added that he had been “clear” about the matter in conversations with Israeli officials during his visit this week to the country.

“Any restrictions imposed on the Law of Return is not a message that we can send to Jewish communities around the world, and we’ve been clear on this during our conversations,” said Deutch.

According to halacha, or Jewish religious law, a person is Jewish if they or their mother is Jewish, or if they convert to Judaism.

There are currently an estimated 400,000 people in Israel’s Jewish sector who are not considered Jewish according to halacha.

Regarding the Law of Return, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided with the establishment of the Jewish state that “whoever was born to a Jewish mother and is not of another religion, or whoever converted according to Jewish law,” will be considered a Jew.

In 1970, however, it was ruled that the children and grandchildren of a Jew could immigrate to Israel by virtue of the Law of Return. During those years, many discussions were held in order to determine who is a Jew, and how to define a person who converts through a non-Orthodox conversion process, but no consensus was reached.

The leaders of seven major Jewish and Zionist organizations warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month that proposed changes to the “grandfather clause” in the Law of Return could affect the unity of world Jewry.

In contrast, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi David Lau in November urged the Knesset to amend the Law of Return to curb non-Jewish immigration.

The issue came to the fore amid a wave of immigration from Russia and Ukraine following Moscow’s invasion of the latter country, most of whom were not Jewish—only three in 10, according to mid-November data from Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority.

According to an analysis of data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), a surge in legal immigration by those who are not halachically Jewish has led to a decrease in the country’s Jewish majority.

The Israeli Immigration Policy Center, an NGO established in 2012 to promote immigration policy that serves Israel’s strategic interests, found that last year’s 23-year record in the number of new immigrants had resulted in a 0.3% decline in the Jewish majority, to 73.6% from 73.9% at the end of 2021.

This continues a 30-year trend, with the country’s Jewish majority having declined by a total of about 10 percentage points over that span, losing about one point every three years on average.

As a result of the “grandparent clause,” of the new immigrants in 2022, only 32,000 (45% of the total) were Jews.

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