In July 1950, the Law of Return was passed unanimously by the Knesset, establishing the principle that every Jew, wherever he lives, is entitled to immigrate to Israel—that Diaspora Jews have the “right of aliyah.”
The history of the controversy surrounding and amendments made to the Law of Return constitutes a fascinating example of the influence and mutual regulation of the three branches of Israel’s government—executive, legislative and judicial—in an effort to form the Jewish character of the state in accordance with its modern understanding.
It also reflects a tense debate over the central question confronting Israeli society: Who is a Jew? Or, in other words, “What is the essence of Jewish identity in Israel and the Diaspora?”
In the 1990s, the wave of mass immigration from the former Soviet Union brought with it new motives for the Israeli debate over the Law of Return. Secular and religious circles in Israel expressed concerns over the increase of the number of olim (immigrants) whose affiliation with any component of Jewish culture and civilization is somewhat tenuous.
The discussion in the Knesset and public arena regarding the need to amend the Law of Return in order to reduce the number of non-Jews eligible for citizenship never stopped. The tension around it continues to this day.
Diaspora leaders and heads of Jewish organizations have actively contributed to the discussion over the major Israeli law, which is directly affecting the public sphere in both Israel and the Diaspora. Though at first glance the Law of Return only regulates the right to immigrate and obtain Israeli citizenship, it also has a significant impact on the deepest processes taking place in Israeli society and in Jewish communities around the world, which is symbolic.
Those eligible for aliyah under the Law of Return who, for now, have chosen not to leave their countries of residence are the participants of educational programs offered by Diaspora Jewish communities. These programs, initiated by Israeli institutions, help train teachers and organize lessons for a significant number of Jews and their families. Often involved in the activities of Jewish organizations and synagogues, the participants become acquainted with Jewish traditions and community leaders.
Thus, the educational process is actually shaping the face of local communities confronting the challenges of assimilation and anti-Semitism.
The discussion over various aspects of the Law of Return in the legislature and judiciary indicates different attitudes that coexist in Israeli society towards a wide range of issues, such as the place of Jewish tradition and halachah (Jewish law), intermarriage and the interaction of various movements in Judaism.
Despite the vigorous debate, no changes have been made to the Law since the 1970s. However, the discussion itself allows different sectors of Israeli society better to understand the aspirations of those who have different opinions on issues of self-identification and the future of the Israel as a Jewish democratic state.
Today, seventy years after its approval, the Law of Return is sparking fierce controversy, and the discourse on the Jewish identity of olim continues to strike a chord. The Law strongly affects the partnership between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, thereby shaping the character of the state of Israel as a national home for world Jewry as envisioned by the Zionist movement from the outset.
Dr. Haim Ben Yaakov is the director general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.