The Law of Return battle is often seen as a debate on 'Who Is A Jew'

On March 10th, 1970, Israel’s Law of Return, which was originally passed in 1950, was amended to fully define the question of “Who is a Jew” and based on that who is worthy of Israeli citizenship. The amendment was presented by Minister of Justice Yaakov-Shimshon Shapira, and the discourse ahead of its passage highlighted the sharp difference between orthodox and secular positions in Israel, as well the non-Orthodox movements in the Diaspora.

Two cases that reached Israel’s Supreme Court provided the basis for the new amendment on “Who is a Jew”. The first incident occurred in 1962 when Brother Daniel, a monk from Mt. Carmel, who was born a Jew named Oswald Rufeisen in Poland, converted to Catholicism while in hiding during the holocaust. He then applied for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Brother Daniel who was a Zionist activist in many youth groups and had helped rescue Jews in Russia claimed that while Catholicism was his religion, Judaism was his nationality and ethnicity. 

While Israeli rabbinic authorities supported Rufeisen’s application on the Halachic grounds that he was indeed Jewish having been born to a Jewish mother, the secularist Israeli Supreme Court rejected it, claiming that a Jew who had embraced Christianity could no longer be considered Jewish. Despite the Court’s controversial ruling, Brother Daniel became a naturalized citizen of Israel in August of 1963.

The second case, that would stem the future amendment involved Jewish-Israeli Naval Officer Benjamin Shalit, who had married a Christian-Scottish woman while serving abroad. The couple returned to Israel and had two children. When seeking to register their children and apply for their Israeli IDs, the Shalits demanded to register the children as Jewish by nationality while leaving the religion designation blank, due to their non-Jewish mother. 

The Ministry of the Interior initially refused and claimed that both the religion and nationality designation be left blank since Judaism is intertwined with religion. Shalit took the case to the Supreme Court which ruled in his favor in a tight 5-4 vote. The Court argued that an individual clerk or even the Supreme Court could not decide who is a Jew.

The result of the Shalit case led the Knesset to reevaluate the issue of “Who is a Jew” under the Law of Return and the Population Registry Law. The amendment stated that a “Jew means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or who has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.” The law also extended the rights of children, grandchildren, and spouses of Jews, allowing them citizenship under the Law of Return, provided that they were not born Jewish yet had not converted to another religion.  Much of the debate among the religious parties in Israel was that the amendment recognized Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism.

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