Twists in the Law of Return

By Tom Segev
Tom Segev, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, is the author of "The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust" (Hill & Wang, 1993), among other books.

Los Angeles Times

January 21, 2005

JERUSALEM — Sixty years after the liberation of Auschwitz in late January 1945, advertisements are appearing on the front pages here encouraging former Polish Jews and their descendants in Israel to apply for Polish citizenship. What's more, as many as a quarter of a million Israelis who fled Nazi Germany and their descendants have obtained German citizenship.

In applying for European Union passports, these Israelis are supposedly taking advantage of their right to "return home," having fled the countries of their birth as victims of persecution. But that's not what this is really about. Few of the Israelis who are seeking to renew their former citizenship actually regard themselves as Poles or Germans, and they obviously don't intend to restart their lives in Warsaw or Berlin.

Some Israelis say they obtained foreign passports "for the sake of the children": One day they may want to study or work in Europe; they even may want to live there. No, not in Poland, probably not even in Germany, but perhaps in England. Others say they do it because the passports will make it easier for them to travel in countries where Israeli passports are less welcome.

But beneath consular and bureaucratic convenience there lies a deeper explanation for why Israelis want European citizenship. Many Israelis still feel, at least in the back of their minds and very much in Jewish tradition, that "you never know" what hazards might befall you or your country. Obtaining a Polish or a German passport thus — quite ironically — reflects the personal lessons many Israelis have drawn from the Holocaust: You are never really safe. Threats to the Jews can reemerge at any time. It always makes sense to have a fallback plan.

The decision to take on additional citizenship offers a rather embarrassing affront to the Zionist ideology (which proposed the creation of a safe, secure homeland, a refuge to which Jews could always "return" when they were in danger).

One of the country's first laws, passed in 1950, made every Jew in the world eligible for Israeli citizenship. "The Law of Return," as it was called, owes its name to the basic idea of the Zionist creed — that all Jews stem from the original Hebrews of Palestine who were exiled from their homeland 2,000 years ago and hence have an inalienable right to come home.



But the Law of Return has not always worked quite as smoothly as many had hoped.

Over the years the law has had to be amended a number of times, because Israelis were unable — indeed, they still cannot — agree on who, exactly, is a Jew. In recent years as many as 500,000 former residents of the Soviet Union were allowed to settle in Israel in accordance with the Law of Return even though the rabbinical establishment does not recognize them as Jews. This has also been the case with many immigrants from Ethiopia.

What's more, although the Law of Return was originally designed to restore historical justice to the scattered and beleaguered Jewish people, it has, in practice, also been discriminatory to the Arab citizens of Israel and, hence, has jeopardized full democracy.

Arabs who live in Israel want to know, for instance, why a Jewish resident of, say, Los Angeles has the right to automatically become a citizen of Israel while an Arab citizen of Israel who is marrying the daughter of a Palestinian refugee born, say, in Haifa cannot gain permanent residence in the country for his new spouse.

In recent years this has caused some soul-searching, as Israelis try to figure out how to keep Israel Jewish and democratic at the same time. There is no easy way to tackle the historical, symbolic and emotional dimensions of this dilemma (particularly because most Israelis still refuse to acknowledge their country's part in creation of the Palestinian tragedy).

The Law of Return is an issue for Palestinian Arabs living on the territories Israel occupied in 1967, many of whom are demanding their own right of return to the communities they (or their parents) fled or were expelled from when Israel became independent in 1948. This issue is a major obstacle to peace.

The Israeli government has no intention whatsoever of allowing Palestinians a right of return to Israel. But once the Palestinians establish their own state in the West Bank and Gaza, they may pass their own Law of Return. Such legislation would not allow Palestinians to move back into Israel proper, and may not heal their national wound, but it may offer new lives to many Palestinians who have been living in refugee camps in Lebanon and other countries — some for nearly 60 years.

In the meantime, Israel is moving forward with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate Jews from the settlements in Gaza. This will not be easy, for about 7,000 Israeli settlers are refusing to leave their homes there. And some have protested against Sharon by wearing orange badges, reminiscent of the yellow star the Nazis made the Jews wear on their clothes. These settlers may have to be removed by force. In a country where history never rests, this may add yet another ironic twist to the many forms and concepts of return.