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The Law of Return was enacted into the Israeli law on the 5th of July, 1950. This law grants Jews the rights to become residents in Israel and also become citizens. Section 1 of the law of return states that:

‘every Jew has the right to come into this country as an oleh[immigrant].

The Zionist movement’s ‘credo’ which moved for the declaration of Israel as a Jewish State was actualized by this Law of Return by the Israeli government.

These rights and privileges were also made inclusive of individuals with one Jewish grandparent and people married to Jewish partners irrespective of whether or not they are considered Jewish by the orthodox translations of Halakha.

Any person who comes into Israel under the Law of Return would be issued a certificate affirming he or she as an oleh on the day of arrival or sometime later. Involvement in events that negatively affect the Jewish people, posing as a threat to the security or the public health of the Israeli people or having a criminal record that makes you risky to the people leads to the refusal of the issuance of the certificate of oleh. An ultimatum of three months is given to an oleh to reach a decision whether he or she wants to become a citizen or not.


The date, 5th of July was chosen to enact this law as it concurs with the death anniversary of the instigator of the Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl. There was complete agreement on the passing of the Law of Return by Israel’s parliament, Knesset. It stated that: ‘every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh’.

During the announcement of this law, the prime minister of that time, David Ben-Gurion, confirmed that the newly enacted law was a right that Jews already had.

“This law does not provide for the state to bestow the right to settle upon the Jew living abroad; it affirms that this right is inherent in him from the very fact if being a Jew; the state does not grant the right of return to the Jews in diaspora. This right preceeds the state; this right build the state; its source is to be found in the historic and never broken connection between the Jewish people and the homeland”.

The implementation of the legislation concerning immigration can be found in the Nationality Law of 1952.

Initially, the law was intended for only Jews but due to the difficulty encountered by lawmakers in defining who is a Jew, the problem was left to sort itself out over time. Due to this, the law depended on the results from the traditional halakhic definition.  The non-definition of who a Jew is led to disparities in the perspectives of different Jews who contend for acknowledgement.

Immigration to Israel under the Law of Return implied automatic grant of citizenship. But, concerns were shown regarding the immigrants who were granted citizenship, if during census, they could be considered ‘Jewish’. Ordinarily, in accordance to the halakhic definition, a person is a Jew if the mother is Jewish or if they convert to Judaism. Conversions by Conservative or Reform Judaism are not acknowledged by Orthodox Jews.


Amendment of the Law of Return occurred in 1970 to include non-Jews in this right. Amendment number 2,4a states:

The rights of a Jew under this law and the rights of an oleh under the Nationality Law, 5712-1952***, as well as the rights of an oleh under any enactment are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of the grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and voluntarily changed his /her religion.

Since 1970, those affected by this law include;

  • Those born Jews in accordance to the Orthodox interpretation; having a Jewish mother or a maternal grandmother
  • Those with Jewish ancestry; Jewish father or grandfather.
  • Converts to Judaism (Orthodox, Reform or Conservative denominations- not secular- though Reform and Conservative may take place outside the state, similar to civil marriage).
  • But Jews who have migrated to another religion are not eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return even though they are still Jews according to the halakha.


The 1970 amendment was brought on as an answer to the who is a Jew? argument, until this amendment, the law was not specific. Explanations were given as to why the law included people who fell under those categories. One explanation given is that so long as the Nuremberg Law didn’t employ the halakhic definition of ‘who is a Jew’ to establish it’s grounds, so the Law of Return for the grant of immigration and citizenship is not halakhic. Again, after the  1968 immigration from Poland, after the anti-Semitic campaign by the government in which many immigrants were allowed to stay and they had a lot of non-Jewish members.

Secondly, the criteria for the eligibility of immigrants were expanded so as to allow an increase in the populace of Israel to countervail the ‘demographic threat’ which the growth of the Arab population would seemingly cause.

Furthermore, religious Jews were concerned that the politics in Israel was being influenced by secularity, pushing to the background religious factors due to the immigration of both Jewish and non-Jewish people.

Despite all these allowances by the Israeli government, the Israeli Rabbinate is unwaveringly Orthodox and have a clear definition of who a Jew is. So, the eligibility of immigration of thousands of people under the Law of Return does not make them eligible for marriage in Judaism by the Israeli Rabbinate.

In 2008, 2,734,245 Jews have immigrated to Israel since the inception of the Law of Return in 1950. Tons of people who do not meet up to the standard of being a Jew according to the Orthodox Jews have been made citizens of Israel because of the inclusiveness of the law.


The power to deny citizenship was vested on the minister of interior under the Section 2(b) of the Law of Return if anyone is found wanting. An immigrant may be denied citizenship if he or she poses a threat to the security to the State of Israel, for example, treason against the Jewish State, or if a person has incriminating past records like murder which makes the person a risk to the people of Israel, if the person is a fugitive in another country for a crime(unless they are persecution victims), or people whose illnesses endangers the public health. People who are rebels, that is, if they are against the Jewish people and against the cause would also be denied be denied citizenship.

Thanks to this stipulated conditions, people who would have disrupted the peace of the state have been denied citizenship. Prominent cases include Robert Soblen, an American Communist who was a spy for the Soviet Union and escaped to Israel to avoid imprisonment, Victor Vancier, American Kahanist convicted of his participation in series of bombings. Meyer Lansky, an American mobster who was given citizenship but later expelled.

Though a person has been granted citizenship, it doesn’t stop the extradition to another country under an extradition treaty with the other country.


Followers of Messianic Judaism

It was ruled by the Supreme Court of Israel in 1989 that the Messianic Judaism is another religion and that members of this religion are not inclusive under the Law of Return.

On April 16, 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by people whose fathers and grandfathers had been Jews but their applications for citizenship were rejected on the basis of their being Messianic Jews. The applicants argued that they were never Jews, going by the Halakha, so they were not excluded by the conversion clause. They also made the point of their immigration as non-Jews who had Jewish relatives but not Jews themselves. The argument was seen as relevant and the government processed their citizenship. Going by the law, Messianic Jews meet the criteria, so long as they have Jewish ancestry.

Claims of Discrimination In Relation To Palestinian Refugees

Advocators for Palestinian refugees and Palestinians pinpoint the double standard in the Law of Return and make comparisons with the Palestinian right of return, the critics find the law in contrast against the denial of the right of return, offensive, institutionalized ethnic discrimination.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia(ESCWA) were against the Law of Return which granted citizenship to Jews all over the world not minding their origin or nationality and regardless of their links to Israel-Palestine, but not granting the same rights to Palestinians, even those who have ancestral homes in Palestine. This is as a result of ‘demographic engineering’ which is meant to keep Israel’s status as a Jewish state. This report was later retracted after a controversy.

Same Sex Relationship

For the first time on June 10th 2011, a gay couple sought to be citizens in Israel under the Law of Return, one of them was a Jew and the other was a catholic. The citizenship was granted to the Jew and wasn’t granted the husband. The decision to grant citizenship was deliberated upon despite being stated that the spouse of the Jew could be granted citizenship. The citizenship was granted the husband of the Jew on August 10 2011, by the minister of interior, as specified by the Law of Return.

It was later decreed by the minister of interior, Gidon Sa’ar, in 2014 that in accordance to the Law of Return, same-sex couples who want to immigrate to Israel would be granted citizenship, so long as they are eligible.

Support For The Law Of Return

  1. There are several ways to become a citizen of Israel, it could be through naturalization, through marriage, residence. Naturalization for example is made available for non-Jewish parents of a citizen who has completed his service in the army.
  2. The right granted Jews is not a direct discrimination against non-Jews, rather could be seen as positive discrimination. There are laws that could grant residency and citizenship to non-Jews as well. Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America(CAMERA) argues that the Law of Return is consistent with Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination article I(3), which says allows for preferential immigration treatment of some groups without discriminating against another group. The argument brought forward by CAMERA and others is that other countries, like Germany make provisions for immigration to people with ethnic ties to these countries.
  3. The Law of Return probably aims at making Israel predominantly Jewish. This is not really a problem, given that Jews are persecuted, so there’s need for a place where they would be safe. So, making Israel a Jewish state is important for the survival of Jews. CAMERA, points that the Law of Return is justified under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination article I(4), agreeing that the law is the right course of action because of the discrimination the Jews faced during Holocaust.
  4. The director of Yakar’s Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem and member of the Israeli delegation to the UN World Conference against Racism, Benjamin Pogrund, calls out the unfairness of the law from the Palestinian refugees’ perspective but sees that the unfairness does not only happen in Israel. Pogrund makes the comparison of how Palestinians were expelled and had to flee in 1948 and 1967 to Germany, Poland, India, Czech Republic and Pakistan.


Debate in Israel

The Jews in Israel are in full support of the law. In 2016, a poll was conducted by Pew Forum and 98% of Israeli voted that the law be continued, the rest were of the opinion that the law gives permission for too many non-Jews, therefore swaying the cause of the law.

But, the support is not as high in Israeli Arabs, during a survey conducted by Haifa University Sociologist, Sammy Smooha among 700 Jews and 700 Arabs in 2017, just 25.2% accepted the Law of Return, this is a decrease from the 39% from 2015.

A violent Neo-Nazi cell(patrol 35) was discovered in September 2007 in Petah Tikva which consisted of teenage immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This discovery led to a meeting of amendment of the Law of Return. A representative of the Zionist movement and a member of National Religious Party and National Union, Effi Eitam, previously made moves to amend the Law of Return, expressing his concerns over Israel being a shelter to groom those who detest Israel, Jews and are taking advantage of the Law of Return to carry out their motives. Ta’al and MK Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab criticized the law’s impartiality, pointing out that it allows people from different countries to immigrate and reside and even gain citizenship but citizens from Nazareth and Tayibe are denied the permission to visit their relatives because they are Arabs.

37% of Israelis expressed that running background checks on immigrants before granted residency or citizenship would only groom discrimination from Russian-speaking countries.

Applicability of the law

The wordings of the law itself still causes problems among those who want the continuity of the Law of Return. The definition the law gave to the Law of Return is still a cause of arguments, Jews home and abroad are still contending over the definition of the Law of Return, according to the cause the bill is supposed to serve. There’s still active deliberation over the meaning of  ‘Jewish State’ and ‘State of Jews’.

Not only Knesset has been directly or indirectly trying to address this problem, many ministers of interior have been making efforts to give a solution to the problem but all to no avail. Even the Judiciary has been called upon to give adequate solution to the issue. The repeated occurrence of this question only reveals the differences in the opinions of Israelis.

Another major challenge is the person who wields the power to convert people to Judaism for immigration and citizenship reasons. For a long time the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has been in charge of this but has been met by opposition by non-orthodox religious leaders home and abroad. There’s been moves made to lay the issue to rest, the Ne’eman commission being the most recent attempt but it’s still a dead end.

On March 31, 2005, the Supreme Court declared that the irrespective of whether it is Orthodox, Conservative or Reform conversion that takes place abroad, the Jew would be recognized by the government. Though the Ne’eman commission advocated that a single body should be in charge of deciding the eligibility of an immigrant, the court did not tow this line. Since it was already stated in 1989 that conversions that took place outside of Israel were still valid regardless of whether they were Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. The ruling in 2005 further re-stated this.

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