Law of Return

From Academic Kids

Template:Israelis The Law of Return is Israeli legislation that allows Jews to settle in the State of Israel and gain citizenship. While the original law was enacted to remove barriers for entry to Jewish refugees from around the world, its continued status is controversial with regard toward Palestinian Arab refugees from present-day Israel and their rights.

Supporters of the Law of Return claim that in order to understand the Law, one must comprehend the political context in which it was written. At the time of the measure's adoption in 1950, only five years had passed since the end of World War II and the Holocaust, events which occasioned upon European Jews incalculably large losses of family members, friends, communities, and livelihoods. This context also included consideration of a consistent pattern of persecution of Jews in virtually the entire diaspora.

Jewish immigration to Palestine was not only seen as the fulfillment of a religious cultural vision, but as the only viable option for Jews seeking refuge from anti-Semitic persecution. While other states had denied the mass immigration of Jewish refugees, forceful Zionist advocates in Palestine had become symbolic of both a literal interpretation of the cause for a Jewish homeland and a tangible and immediate means for continued survival.


The Law

The Law of Return and the Law on Citizenship were enacted by the Knesset, Israel's Parliament in the summer of 1950 (on the Jewish calendar, 20th Tammuz 5710). These two pieces of legislation contain expressions pertaining to religion, history and nationalism, as well as to democracy, in a combination unique to Israel. They do indeed grant preferential treatment to Jews "returning" to their ancestral homeland.

The purpose of the Law of Return, like that of the Zionist Movement, was to provide a solution to the Jewish people's problem - to establish a home for the entire Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. In the Law of Return, the State of Israel put into practice the Zionist Movement's "credo" as pledged in the Declaration of Independence.

The Law of Return declares that Israel constitutes a home not only for the inhabitants of the State, but also for all members of the Jewish people everywhere, be they living in poverty and fear of persecution or be they living in affluence and safety. The law declares to the Jewish people and to the world that the State of Israel welcomes the Jews of the world to return to their ancient homeland.


Critics claim that the Law of Return is part of a larger system of "institutional apartheid", whereby Jews in Israel are given superior civil and social rights over Arabs. They further claim that the purpose of the Right of Return runs counter to the claims of a democratic state.

Defenders of the law propose two basic arguments:

  • That special privileges to one group (i.e., Jews) does not necessarily or automatically discriminate against another. Israel has residency and citizenship laws for non-Jews that are equivalent to those in other liberal democracies.
  • That while the purpose of the Right of Return is to keep Israel predominantly Jewish, the policy that it represents is legitimate and justified. In a world where Jews have been persecuted, the concept of a maintaining a Jewish state is necessary for the survival of the Jewish people generally and to provide a safe haven for Jewish refugees in specific cases.

In addition, defenders point out that several countries provide special immigration privileges to individuals with ethnic ties to these countries. For example, Germany allows ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe residency and citizenship rights.

In Israel, a debate continues to rage over the Law of Return. Some people wish to retain it as it stands, others want to modify it, and a small minority want to abolish the Law completely. Those who would abolish the Law believe that it grants Jews rights that members of other groups governed by the State of Israel do not have, a situation which would be contrary to the spirit of a modern liberal democracy. They further claim that although the law did indeed contribute to immigration and absorption when Israel was established, it is no longer needed. Detractors state that Israel is "Jewish and democratic" not just democratic, that it was established as a Jewish state and a refuge for the Jewish people, not as a pale copy of other world states.

Whether or not the Law of Return is just in general, critics also point out that Israel should provide similar privileges to Palestinian refugees.

Advocates for the Palestinian people cite several international resolutions and mandates supporting their own "Right of Return", such as United Nations Resolution 3236 of 1974, which: "Reaffirms also the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return." Similarly, international law states that refugees are entitled to return to the land from which they fled.

Detractors from the Palestinian position argue that:

  • UN General Assembly resolutions merely express the political convictions of a simple majority in the assembly and do not approach the status of international law.
  • A just resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem must take place in a broader context that includes consideration of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, the ability and willingness of Arab countries to absorb their Palestinian brothers
  • Most importantly, that Israel can not make concessions that would endanger its very survival. An influx of hostile Palestinians to Israel now would seriously endanger the state's security, so a peaceful resolution must precede any such arrangements.

Detractors state that the General Assembly resolutions are neither binding nor rooted in international law, since the Palestinian Arabs who fled did not flee from an established country, but at that time, disputed territory.


See also Who is a Jew

Amongst those who are in favor of retaining the Law, controversy exists over its wording. The Law's definition of a "Jew" and "Jewish people" are subject to debate. Israeli and Diaspora Jews differ with each other as groups and among themselves as to what this definition should be for the purposes of the Law of Return. Additionally, there is a lively debate over the meaning of the terms "Jewish State" and "State of the Jews."

Discussion around the Law and its wording constantly reappears on private and public agendas in Israel and in the Diaspora. The Knesset has repeatedly debated proposals to amend the Law of Return, and it has indeed been amended a number of times over the years. These modifications reflect the changes that have taken place in Israeli society, the shifts that have taken place in political dialogue both inside Israel itself, and the political discourse between Israel and the Diaspora. The present law constitutes an expression of permanent trends as well as of the Israeli legislative system's ability to adapt itself to changing circumstances.

It is not only the Knesset, however, which has been repeatedly obliged to directly or indirectly address these issues. Over the years, many of Israel's interior ministers have examined the issue of the Law of Return and wavered as to how to apply it. The judiciary has also been called upon to express an opinion on matters relating to the Law. This burning and recurrent question in the country's political dialogue not only reveals but also exacerbates differences of opinion between Israelis.

One central issue is who has the authority over determining the validity of conversions to Judaism for purposes of immigration and citizenship. For historical reasons, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, under the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs, made this determination, but this arrangement is in question. This practice has met opposition among non-Orthodox religious leaders both within Israel and in the diaspora. Several attempts have been made to resolve the issue, the most recent being the Ne'eman Commission, but an impasse persists.

On March 31, 2005, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled 7-4 that all conversions performed outside of Israel would be recognized by the authorities under the Law of Return, notwithstanding the Ne'eman Commission's view that a single body should determine eligibility for immigration. Orthodox religious leaders objected vehemently to this ruling, arguing that it would lead to fraudulent immigration applications.


The issue is also the focus of disagreement in dialogue with Diaspora Jewry, where it similarly draws attention to and intensifies differences. Many are dissatisfied with and wish to change the Law's current wording. Others query whether the time has come to repeal the law in order to minimize differences of opinion, avert new disagreements, and improve the State of Israel's democratic image in both domestic and foreign eyes.

An in-depth grasp of the history of — and the controversy surrounding — the Law is absolutely essential for Israeli students and Diaspora Jewry alike, for these issues are so fundamental to the nature and attributes of the State of Israel. Understanding the questions raised by the Law about human rights, Jewish identity, and the meaning of an Israeli state is indispensable since debates on these subjects constitute a key theme in the political tension in Israel and the Diaspora.

Those who would explore this issue will be required to address the question of their identity as individuals, as citizens of the State of Israel, and/or as members of the Jewish people. An awareness of the dimensions of the issues is ultimately vital,too, for those now examining the Zionist Movement's "credo" in the post-Zionist era.

Familiarization with aspects of this issue is, moreover, necessary in the light of the formulation of Israel's Basic Laws - the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom and the Basic Law on Freedom of Occupation - which state explicitly that Israel is a Jewish and democratic country.

See also

External Links

he:חוק השבות pt:Lei do retorno


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