Throughout the month of March, the Knesset scrambled to address the potential absorption of large numbers of Ukrainians of Jewish heritage fleeing war. Discussions on the topic had a certain practical urgency, but also touched on larger ideological issues regarding who should be considered Jewish enough to claim Israeli citizenship and Israel’s relationship with world Jewry.
On March 8th, 2022, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee established a new subcommittee to handle the situation: the Subcommittee on People Eligible for Citizenship Under the Law of Return and Relations with the Diaspora. This step was taken after the opposition blocked activating the Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs. The new subcommittee is chaired by MK Yomtob Kalfon (Yamina).
MK Kalfon stated after his selection as chairperson of the subcommittee:
“I humbly accept the heavy responsibility of dealing with the emergency situation in Ukraine and the absorption of immigrants in Israel. I came to the Knesset in order to provide for the community of immigrants in Israel, which is very close to my heart. I never could have imagined that we would come to such a complicated situation, with a war in Europe that seems like it will lead to one of the largest and most welcome waves of immigration that Israel has known. Throughout history, the State of Israel has known how to act with the utmost success throughout complex situations and has been able to fulfill its vision to be the home for Jews worldwide.”
Israel’s Law of Return allows any Jew to claim Israeli citizenship. Since 1970, this right has been extended to “a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.”
The establishment of the subcommittee has prompted public musings about the Law of Return and the Jewish character of Israel:
MK Gilad Kariv (Labor):
“The crisis is creating an opportunity for Israel to fulfill its role as a country that works towards the ingathering of the exiles and opens its gates to those eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.”
MK Rabbi Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) criticized the Law of Return:
“Unfortunately, the Law of Return enables people who were born to completely Christian families to come to Israel. They are not part of the Jewish people according to Jewish law. Most immigrants today are considered eligible under the Law of Return based on a very tenuous connection to a distant grandparent who may have been Jewish. They have no real connection to the Jewish people.”
MK Tatiana Mazarsky (Yesh Atid):
“We have recently seen a new and novel interpretation of the Law of Return. And we will not let this happen. Whoever is eligible under the Law of Return and has Jewish heritage will come here, and that is our obligation.”
The newly formed Subcommittee on People Eligible for Citizenship Under the Law of Return and Relations with the Diaspora met again on March 30th.
Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai (Labor) presented his ministry’s activity to the subcommittee:
“We have been dealing with the Ukraine issue intensively for three months. We have strengthened our ties with the Jewish communities there. We have heard about their needs and their hardships, and I have been impressed by the leadership of their rabbis. We decided to allocate 10 million shekels for aid to the communities, which helped them at the outset. Their needs are enormous. The aid is anchored in the Nation-State Law, but I do not need a formal law to help Jews wherever they are. A new chapter of Jewish history has begun over the last month. We will need to rebuild the Jewish communities in Ukraine to be sure, and in other places. We will send people to help them. We will not eliminate Jewish life outside of Israel.”
Multiple MKs voiced sharp criticism of the scope and pace of Israel’s absorption of immigrants from Ukraine.
MK Zvi Hauser (New Hope) turned to the representative of the “Nativ” organization of the Prime Minister’s office, responsible for immigration from the former Soviet Union:
“We are preparing for absorption from the [former] Soviet Union, and the state is handling the event with seven people? If there were 100 people to deal with it, would matters be expedited and would the scale be larger? In the current situation, the State of Israel is completely blind, dealing with the issue at a six-month pace. Whoever wants to immigrate to Israel needs an answer within seven days. The Prime Minister should have banged his fist and demanded that.”
MK Hauser continued his remarks in reference to the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration:
“Germany has announced its own right of return for Jews. It prioritizes Jews, without evaluating their potential for integration. You must understand this. We are competing against the Germans… This must be dealt with day and night. You have been asleep for two months, and are trying to pick things up at an irrelevant pace for the challenge. Before our eyes we will miss the challenge, and in another year or two we will understand that 250,000 Jews came to Germany and not to Israel because we didn’t go above and beyond.”
Meir Spiegel, the project manager for the immigration from Ukraine and Director General of the National Insurance Institute replied:
“We are doing all that we can so that those who are eligible that have arrived in Germany or France will come to Israel as quickly as possible. We must remember that families are coming with husbands left behind, and the integration is more difficult.”
MK Ron Katz (Yesh Atid):
“I hope that no new immigrant sees this discussion. We are deliberating about where to put them, while in Germany they get everything top-of-the-line.”
Subcommittee chairperson MK Kalfon wrapped up the meeting:
“This meeting has gone on for three hours, which is not enough. There are many failures in regards to the immigration of people eligible for citizenship under the law of return and world Jewry. The state must reach out to them proactively. This week, we lost in soccer to Germany, and now we are losing the hearts of our brothers in the Diaspora to Germany and to other countries. We are not in a position that if they need us, we are here for them. The basis of Zionism is to bring Jews here, to the State of Israel.”