The 1950 Law of Return gives every Jew the right to come to Israel as an oleh (immigrant) and become an Israel citizen. It also grants the right to make aliyah (immigrate) to any individual who has one Jewish parent or grandparent or is married to someone who is Jewish or has a Jewish parent or grandparent.
The Law of Return can best be viewed as a response to the long history of persecution of the Jews. It is also a practical expression of the Jewish people’s aspirations for the rebirth of their independent state in their ancient homeland.
The rationale for the Law of Return was obvious in the wake of the Holocaust – it was designed to ensure that every Jew could find a place of refuge and rebuild their lives in a Jewish homeland. Upon establishment of the state in 1948, the first act of the government was to abolish all the British restrictions on Jewish immigration, allowing the survivors of the Holocaust, and later the Jews fleeing Arab states, to find shelter in their homeland. In many ways the Law of Return was the Jewish state’s answer to the British White Paper of 1939, which severely limited Jewish immigrate to the Mandate territory and doomed the Jews of Europe. With this act, the Israeli government declared that Israel would serve as a haven for Jews from around the world. Since then, it has helped Jews fleeing persecution and hardship, from antisemitism in the Communist bloc to famine in Ethiopia.
The Law of Return does not discriminate against non-Jewish citizens of Israel because it does not deal with any citizens of Israel, only potential immigrants. The law is sometimes criticized because it does not allow Arabs to freely immigrate to Israel or for Palestinian refugees and their descendents to reclaim their former homes. Either situation would undermine the Jewish nature of Israel, which was established as a homeland for the Jewish people, as prescribed by UN Resolution 181 of 1947 (the Partition Plan) and the League of Nations Mandate of 1922. Israel’s Law of Return upholds the rights of the Jews.
Furthermore, the Law of Return is not the only path to Israeli nationality. Any non-Jew who wishes to immigrate to Israel may do so through the process of naturalization, under the Law of Entry and the Law of Citizenship, in a manner similar to that in most other democracies. Meanwhile the matter of the Palestinian refugees should be settled through the negotiating process and in the framework of a Palestinian state. When a Palestinian state is established, the Palestinians will be free to enact their law of return to their own territory.
To criticize the Law of Return as racist is to apply a double standard to Israel. Many democracies have compatible laws and similar relationships between their nation-states and national diasporas. Numerous constitutions provide for national repatriation and these ties are reflected in immigration and citizenship laws.
A number of countries in Western Europe (Ireland, Greece, Germany, France, Finland), most central and eastern European states and some Asian states (China, Japan, the Philippines) have repatriation laws similar to the Law of Return. For example, under its immigration laws, Finland gives preferential treatment to those of Finnish-ethnic extraction from the former USSR, calling it repatriation, even though many are descendants of Finns who emigrated from Finland hundreds of years ago.
The Law of Return is compatible with Israel’s identity as a liberal democracy. Israel was established to provide a safe haven for Jews around the world and the Law of Return also has brought a scattered people back together in their homeland.
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