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Israel & Judaism through a Fresh Lens
Israel & Judaism through a Fresh Lens

One More Time: The Law of Return isn’t Racist

It’s hard for a Jew who grew up in Brooklyn to admit, but sometimes, it isn’t worth arguing. It really does depend on the circumstance. Case in point: tour guides. Sure, I overhear lots of them walking around Jerusalem. And they often make odd mistakes or misrepresentations. While putting in my own two cents is tempting, there is little point. They’ll probably be defensive, and convince the tourists that you are a dufus once you walk away. Hence my strict “no arguing with tour guides” policy.

I just broke it.

“Well you know,” he said, “according to Israeli law, any Jew who comes here can automatically become a citizen. It's a pretty racist law, I know. But it isn’t totally racist, because you can convert to Judaism. But it is mostly racist.”

I really tried to stay out of it. But it turns out that they were walking the same way as me and it kept going for, like, three minutes. That may sound brief, but it felt like hours of torture.

“Hi! Would you mind if I made a couple of observations?”, I interjected in as friendly and polite a manner as I could pull off.

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“Sure”, he said. He was polite too, but I got the feeling that he recognized a familiar occupational hazard. His eyes only rolled in his mind.

“If the Law of Return was based on religious orientation, it would be racist. But since it's based on nationality, it’s perfectly normal,” I calmly explained.

“Well, yes, I suppose that’s part of it,” he conceded. “But it's also based on religion.”

To prove him wrong, I made the following points:

  • The Zionists who made the law weren’t religious.
  • Zionism created Israel based on the concept of the Jewish nation coming home from exile after 2,000 years. Citizenship is therefore waiting for any descendant of a citizen of Judea. It is, in a word, repatriation.
  • The word “Jew” derives from the word Judean. It describes our nation. Using the original name of the first state may be confusing, but the law applies to descendants of the second state.
  • A person with a Jewish paternal grandfather can get automatic citizenship under this Israeli Basic Law, as can someone married to a Jew. Although not a practitioner of the religion, they are part of the national whole, and granted citizenship. The Rabbis can refuse to marry them to someone they consider to be Jewish under their religious definition of the word. But they have no say at all in their citizenship.
  • There is no test or question of observance or belief, only national heritage.
  • My granddaughter has an U.S. passport, although she’s never been to the Western hemisphere. She inherited American nationality to her mother. One day, she can pass this on to her children. (As opposed to religion, nationality is inherited. Belief, on the other hand, is chosen) This is the same principle as the Law of Return, without the pesky exile thrown in the way.
  • There are also ways for non-Jews to naturalize and gain Israeli citizenship.

“Ok,” he said, “thanks so much! More power to you!”

After I left, I wondered if he explained to his group that I was a dufus. I hope not.


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