Reform, Conservative movements reject proposed changes to Israel’s Law of Return
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Diaspora worriesNew far-right coalition eyes changes "grandchild clause"

Reform, Conservative movements reject proposed changes to Israel’s Law of Return

The contemplation of changing the Law of Return is deeply offensive and a gross affront, Jacobs said.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, copyright © Union for Reform Judaism. Photo by Jill Peltzman.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, copyright © Union for Reform Judaism. Photo by Jill Peltzman.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is concerned about what a new governing coalition in Israel might mean for the Law of Return and its grandchild clause.

Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, representing 1.5 million Jews and nearly 900 congregations across North America.

Both Jacobs and the URJ are unequivocal about what a change in the law would mean.

“It’s a move that would undermine the very fabric of the Zionist enterprise and would be a deliberate harming of the sense of the Jewish people all over the world who know there’s one Jewish homeland and that the Law of Return has been a sacred commitment the state of Israel has made with world Jewry,” he told the Chronicle.

If there is persecution or rising antisemitism in North America or other parts of the world, he said, Jews know that Israel is their home.

Passed in 1950, the Law of Return granted Jews the right to relocate to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship. In 1970, the law was amended giving the right of entry and settlement to those with at least one Jewish grandparent and a person who is married to a Jew, regardless of whether they are considered Jewish under the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.

In 2021, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements must be recognized as Jews for the Law of Return and are also entitled to Israeli citizenship.

Those reforms have become threatened since the last Israeli election, Jacobs said.

Benjamin Netanyahu has worked to piece together a governing coalition in which he would serve as prime minister. The new coalition would include several far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties, including the Religious Zionist Party led by Bezalel Smotrich.

Smotrich has pushed to cancel the grandchild clause, causing consternation and concern among liberal Jews in and out of Israel.

Jacobs said the Ukraine-Russian conflict is an example of why the clause is needed.

“Let’s be clear,” he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union who have made aliyah and qualify under the grandchild clause. It’s also clear that in North America, with the rise of antisemitism, the antisemites aren’t asking, ‘Excuse me, are you the child or grandchild of a Jew?’”

The contemplation of changing the Law of Return is deeply offensive and a gross affront, Jacobs said.

This isn’t the first time changes to the grandchild clause have been threatened, Jacobs noted, but in the past, the move was largely opposed, including by those in the Israeli government and around the world.

Organizations are now coordinating against this latest salvo, he said.

Jacobs said hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Jews are affected by any changes to the law and that it would weaken Jewish society.

“If somebody who has one Jewish grandparent decides to move to Israel and cast their lot with the state of Israel and contribute to the society, serve in the Israel Defense Forces and build up the Jewish state, why in the world would we not embrace that person and support and encourage them?”

Jacobs is concerned with other changes that the new coalition government may enact. He described the Religious Zionist Party as one of the most extreme parties ever included in a coalition.

“They are anti-LGBTQ, anti-non-Orthodox Jew, anti-Palestinian citizens of Israel,” Jacobs said. “The list they look down on is quite long and quite distressing.”

The Masorti-Conservative movement is also concerned about a possible change to the Law of Return.

The Rabbinical Assembly — the international association of Conservative rabbis — released a statement in November rejecting calls to end recognition of Masorti-Conservative and Reform conversions in Israel.

“We unequivocally reject the invalidation of conversions by Masorti-Conservative and Reform rabbis for the purposes of Aliyah and denounce all initiatives that challenge the auspices of the main streams of Judaism, and which seek to disrupt the critical foundation of religious pluralism that allows the State of Israel to survive and flourish,” the statement reads. “Further, Israel is the homeland of all Jews. To deny the authenticity of Reform and Masorti-Conservative Judaism would effectively sever Israel’s connection with millions of Jews throughout the world.”

Temple Emanuel of South Hills Rabbi Aaron Meyer said that only a small percentage of the Jews he worked with toward conversion would choose to make aliyah.

However, he added, “this feels like a symbolic repudiation or alienation. I’m less concerned about the practical ramifications as much as I am about the realities of a group trying to estrange Jews from the state of Israel.”

Meyer said he doesn’t think the issue is yet on the radar of many people who are exploring Judaism, but he is concerned about the new Israeli government being pieced together.

“If this strain of extremism continues to have a stranglehold over coalition politics, it does have the potential to challenge the inroads Israeli Reform and Masorti-Conservative movements have made,” he said.

Despite the challenges presented by the proposed governing coalition, Jacobs doesn’t think conditioning funding from the United States is a good idea.

“Israel is surrounded by very hostile forces,” he said. “The kind of rockets that have been unleashed from Gaza don’t land on people of some political persuasion. They land on everyone. I think Israel’s security and safety is essential. I also think it’s critical that Israel remains a Jewish democratic state.”

While Reform and Conservative Jews are leading the charge against changes to the Law of Return, any alterations have the potential to affect Orthodox conversions in the United States as well.

In 2018, Israel’s official Jewish religious authority published a list of 69 rabbinical courts it trusted to perform conversions, thereby rejecting the authority of many leading Orthodox rabbis in the States, including liberal Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss and Modern Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, both of New York, according to a report in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

For now, Jacobs hopes that Jews of all stripes will voice their concern about the possible changes.

“It’s not a small group that will be offended,” he said. “I hope that Zionists of all different backgrounds — I hope that even Orthodox Zionists — are offended that this would even be proposed by the new government. The ultra-Orthodox parties are supportive of this move. I think that the only person who has a good chance to block it would be Prime Minister Netanyahu. We hope and pray, and are going to continue to raise our voices, that he knows what kind of harm this decision would cause.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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