In Defense of the Law of Return

In Defense of the Law of Return

It is Israel’s compensatory response to the truth of Jewish experience.


Israel was established as a democratic Jewish state. While reasonable people may differ as to whether it is “too Jewish,” or how well it has fulfilled its promise of equal rights for all, few would dispute that the Law of Return is on its face antithetical to the core principles of democracy. Passed on July 5, 1950, two days after the anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s death, it guarantees every Jew automatic entrance and immediate citizenship. Members of other ethnic and religious groups may be accepted as immigrants or refugees, but Jews who “make aliyah” instantly acquire the right to vote, receive financial benefits, even run for the Knesset. Since the law privileges Jews and only Jews, its perils are obvious:

(1) It codifies a double standard. In contravention of the Declaration of Independence of 1948, which insures “complete equality of social and political rights to all [of Israel’s] inhabitants,” the law grants one group a superior legal entitlement, creating a hierarchy of human worth based on religious identity and setting the stage for other asymmetrical privileges.

(2) It nullifies and supersedes legitimate property rights. Jews with no claim to residence (aside from biblical assurances or messianic eschatology) are welcomed with open arms while Palestinians who hold keys to particular homes or deeds to particular property are denied entry.

(3) It serves hegemonic goals. Many who proselytize for privileged Jewish immigration espouse a not-so-hidden agenda. They want Jewish citizens to outnumber Arab citizens in order to insure the Jewishness of the state and concentrate power in Jewish hands. (And the Jews they want are usually Greater Israel triumphalists, not members of Brit Tzedek, B’nai Jeshurun, the Tikkun Community or your local lesbian-feminist havurah.)

Recognizing these problems, how can I, a civil libertarian and longtime critic of Israel’s discriminatory policies toward its Palestinian Arab citizens, defend the Law of Return?

Because in this case, I believe history trumps ideology and politics. The Jewish right to instant citizenship strikes me as a factually warranted, compensatory response to the truth of Jewish experience. In David Ben-Gurion’s words, “This right is inherent in every Jew by virtue of his being a Jew.” Since being a Jew has been enough in some places to mark one for persecution or death, it should be a ticket to safety at least on one spot on the globe. However–and this is where I part company with many Zionists–Jews should be entitled to no other prerogatives, claims, immunities or indulgences. Immigration is the only policy arena that merits diluting the purity of democracy with the poison of privilege.

Put simply, I view the Law of Return as the affirmative action program of the Jewish people. It’s a legal accommodation that has been earned in the same way that preferential educational and employment policies in the United States were earned by people of color: through suffering. If four centuries of slavery and institutionalized racism can justify affirmative action programs for American blacks whether or not they themselves were brought here in chains, then surely twenty centuries of oppression and annihilation–think Crusades, Inquisition, forced conversions, pogroms, the Gulag, the Holocaust–justify similarly discrepant favoritism for Jews in Israel.

Bias in favor of an “affected class” is an acknowledgment of the continuing vulnerability of individuals who belong to a disadvantaged group. Much as we Jews might yearn to be a people like any other, the events of three millennia attest that we tend instead to be universal pariahs, perennial exiles, the boat people of the world. I’m mindful of the arrogance of asserting national uniqueness–and of citing Jewish weakness in the face of Israeli military strength–but the fact remains that in every era of recorded time, someone somewhere had it in for the Jews. Egypt, Rome, Babylonia, Cyprus, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Italy, Russia, Syria, Iraq, the former Soviet Union, Turkey, Yemen, Ethiopia–all have produced horrific tyrants and run-of-the-mill tormentors who have excoriated, demonized, humiliated, scapegoated, blood-libeled, ghettoized, banished or slaughtered Jews.

The Law of Return is a remedy for that past and a guarantor of future asylum. As one friend, the child of Holocaust survivors, confessed, “It’s my security blanket.”

One needn’t be Simon Wiesenthal to notice the scary things happening to Jews around the world right now: In Paris a group of Muslim youths forced a woman to swallow her Star of David necklace; a cinema canceled a showing of Harry Potter to 800 Jewish children because of threats of violence; the words “dirty Jew” were painted on the statue of Alfred Dreyfus. In Berlin visiting American rabbis were given a police escort for their own safety and warned not to wear their yarmulkes in public. In Brussels two synagogues were firebombed, a third sprayed by automatic weapons. A yeshiva student in Orthodox attire was stabbed twenty times on a London bus. A woman in Russia was maimed when she tried to remove an anti-Semitic billboard that was booby-trapped with explosives.

According to 2002 ADL polls, 30 percent of respondents in England, Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium expressed strong anti-Semitic feelings, as did more than one in five respondents in Italy, Spain, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Measured by swastika graffiti, cemetery or synagogue vandalism, and threats and assaults, anti-Semitism in the United States rose 8 percent last year, averaging four incidents per day.

Other chilling developments: Rumors that “the Jews” masterminded the destruction of the World Trade Center or were warned in advance to stay home from work on 9/11 have entered respectable public discourse on websites and in communities where the notion of “Jewish power” is buttressed by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

On some US campuses, anti-Israel rhetoric has been conflated with flagrantly anti-Semitic slogans, like “Hitler should have finished the job.” Such verbal abuse, often accompanied by physical harassment, can be so traumatizing as to make Jews wonder if they should leave the country before it’s déjà vu all over again. (For the left to ignore attacks on Jews as Jews is as morally execrable as criticism of Sharon’s government is morally obligatory.)

Recently the specter of “dual loyalties,” long a trigger of anti-Semitic bigotry, was raised when Patrick Buchanan, the ultra-right commentator and former presidential candidate, cast aspersions on those who “harbor a passionate attachment to a nation not our own.” Representative James Moran of Virginia stirred up another incendiary canard–Jewish influence–by attributing America’s war with Iraq to “the strong support of the Jewish community,” though polls showed Jewish attitudes toward military action precisely matched the national sentiment.

In the 1970s, during Jimmy Carter’s oil crisis, I pulled into a service station behind a car with a bumper sticker that read, “If you’re waiting in line for gas, blame the Jews.” Now it seems the Jews are responsible for the Iraq war, Islamist terrorism, oil shortages, the AIDS epidemic and international anti-Americanism. The culprits are not Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams or Douglas Feith but “the Jews.” (I’ve yet to hear someone blame the Methodists for George Bush and Dick Cheney, or the blacks for Condi Rice and Colin Powell.)

Given rising anti-Semitic vitriol and the recurrent habit, especially in hard times, of attributing to Jews nefarious motives and conspiratorial power, there is new resonance to the old joke, “Even paranoids have enemies.” I’ve begun to wonder how many more Americans–ordinary working people cowed by accusations of “class warfare” and unwilling to trace their economic and social discontents to globalization, tax cuts for the rich, corporate malfeasance or cowboy leadership–might start looking for someone to blame. And whether, to assuage a disgruntled populace or achieve an ideological or political purpose, those in power might dump on “the Jews” to the point where we are once again at risk. And whether any nation, based on its track record, can be trusted to guarantee Jewish safety. And why, after all we’ve been through, Jews should have to justify the existence of a haven, a place where, in Robert Frost’s words, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

For me, the reason to maintain the Law of Return is Rescue. Every country formulates its immigration policy to suit its perceived national self-interest. The United States maintains quotas, deports “undesirables,” welcomes Cuban defectors while denying asylum to Nigerians escaping worse persecution. Israel takes in Jews.

Mideast harmony does not require world Jewry to renounce this lifeline. Were the Knesset to rescind the Jewish Law of Return tomorrow it would not by itself reignite the peace process. What would advance the cause, however, would be Israel’s acknowledgment of the Palestinian right of return. While it is not feasible to absorb millions of Palestinian refugees inside the Green Line, it is possible, as proposed in the 2003 Geneva Accords, to take in thousands without imperiling the Jewishness of Israel or, in lieu of physical return, for Israel to pay reparations and help the Palestinian state absorb some of its own diaspora within its own borders. It is possible for Israel to admit that the displacement of another people was a byproduct of the establishment of the Jewish state, to address the pain of that expulsion diplomatically and economically, and find a compromise that honors Palestinians’ parallel passion for this beleaguered land.

Were Israel as committed to justice as to Jewishness, its internal democracy would not be threatened by the Law of Return, because, beyond instant citizenship, Jews would enjoy no special rights. Jewish institutions would not receive disproportionate resources. Jewish neighborhoods would not be better served by public utilities and government agencies. The Jewish National Fund would not have the power to deny non-Jews the right to live, work or run a business on “state lands.” Jewish votes would not count more than votes of other citizens in the psychology of electoral legitimacy. Jewish officials would be held accountable for the impact of their policies on non-Jews. Orthodox political parties would not be permitted to hijack the political process for the exclusive advantage of their own communities. The rabbinate would not control the laws of “personal status” that affect every citizen.

But then, some might ask, what would make the Jewish state Jewish? Culture. Historical markers. Educational priorities. Hebrew as an official language. Jewish holidays. If Christmas qualifies as a national holiday in our democracy, why not Hanukkah in Israel? If Thanksgiving and July 4 can be celebrated by all Americans, including those without the remotest connection to the Pilgrims or the Founding Fathers, why can’t Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) or Tisha B’av be official commemorations in Israel? If “bombs bursting in air” can be glorified in our national anthem, nefesh Yehudi (the Jewish spirit) can be tolerated in Hatikva. If Sunday remains the pre-eminent day of rest here, with shuttered liquor stores to prove it, Israeli banks can be closed on Shabbat.

Just as American history takes precedence in our school curricula, Jewish history can hold pride of place in Israel. If American teachers can struggle with competing narratives–about cowboys and Indians, or the McCarthy era, or the Confederate flag–Israeli educators can haggle over conflicting perspectives on the British Mandate, the War of Independence or the Zionist dream.

More than anything else, Jews can make the state Jewish by acting Jewishly. This is tachlis, not tautology. Israel needs more Jews who are willing to pay for the privilege of citizenship with the practice of justice: Jews who actualize Jewish values in their everyday life rather than merely speak the right words in synagogue. Jews who do not oppress the stranger, do not treat the Other as they would not wish to be treated, and never forget that each human being was created in God’s image. Jews who seek peace and pursue it.

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