Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit set off a mini-bombshell Tuesday when he told the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors that it is time to cease handing out automatic Israeli citizenship "to any Jew." To that effect, Sheetrit proposed amending the Law of Return. The uproar he managed to generate not only yielded controversial headlines and elicited contentious reactions, but it also overshadowed whatever cogent arguments Sheetrit presented as justification for his radical remedy. If Sheetrit's aim was to promote serious discussion, then he foiled it.
There's no denying the problematic nature of the sort of immigration which Israel has largely attracted in recent years. Broad-minded, frank discourse is highly warranted but not so the alacrity to "make history" and rush to tinker with the foundations of the Jewish state, as Sheetrit stridently and unwisely proposed.
Focusing superficially on the wrong aspect of the issue, Sheetrit raced headlong to the most drastic, dangerous and irresponsible solution. The Law of Return is an ideal, underscoring the state's Jewish character and the profound sense of Jewish solidarity which motivated its founding fathers. As such, it is indeed unlike immigration laws anywhere else. It sets no financial, professional or economic criteria but is based on historical commonality and spirit of a shared lot and identity.
This divergence from the norm, however, hardly makes the Law of Return a candidate for amendment, as Sheetrit recommends. If anything, it should be protected and cherished in an age of burgeoning post-Zionism and inimical Arab aims to divest Israel of its inherent Jewishness.
That said, there is no doubt that immigrants with tenuous Jewish links, if any links at all, have come to comprise the bulk of the aliya reaching this country under the aegis of the law, which allows the entry of grandchildren of a Jew, and their progeny, even if they no longer consider themselves Jewish nor identify with the Jewish collective.
It is also true that claims of distant Jewish ancestry (including the fabled "lost tribes") by some particularly exotic newcomers often test credibility. But the Law of Return isn't at fault. What is wrongheaded is its application.
It is right to admit grandchildren of a Jew who, on their own volition, have decided to bond their future with that of the Jewish nation. Indeed there is every reason to welcome such returnees with open arms and open hearts.
Lacking judgment, however, is the practice of many organizations, especially those operating in the FSU (including the Jewish Agency and Nativ), which pro-actively endeavor to inflate immigration rolls and recruit olim. Their emissaries comb provincial ex-Soviet cities seeking out those who may possibly be of Jewish descent yet are alienated from anything Jewish. They are sometimes coaxed to Israel with promises of higher living standards. Such practices attract not only estranged semi-Jews but downright bogus claimants to Jewish extraction.
Many of those arriving from the Russian-speaking sphere for the past few years have not been Jews but, rather, non-Jews eligible for aliya. Some have energetically sought to reembrace, or indeed embrace, the faith. But others encounter considerable absorption and acculturation difficulties, while the host society is taken aback by patterns of violence hitherto scarce in the Jewish milieu.
The same goes for some obvious non-Jewish groupings in Ethiopia and elsewhere. Airlifting non-Jews with an eye to converting them here is misguided. We are nearing the point where we may wonder whether padding population figures is optimal for Israel; whether it doesn't weaken Israel as a Jewish state rather than strengthen it.
Yet precisely at this ultra-sensitive juncture the greatest care must be taken not to throw out the baby with the bath water. None of the above mandates tampering with the Law of Return. In fact, it behooves the Jewish state to keep painstakingly implementing this law, including its "grandfather clause." The emphasis, however, must change.
Part-Jews who immigrate at their individual initiative merit the warmest reception. They are among those for whom the Law of Return was enacted. Its aim, however, was never to hunt for prospective immigrants and entice them with material benefits. Thus vestigial quasi-Jews should not be actively sought and wooed.
Sheetrit, therefore, would do best to seek to change government policy and discourage aggressive searches for Jews where almost none exist. He should not be pompously taking out a contract on the Law of Return.
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