Atlanta — Citing figures showing that more than half of those who arrived in Israel this year from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return are non-Jews, Orthodox Jews are demanding a change in the law. But Absorption Minister Yuli Tamir said that what is needed is a new approach to Judaism.
“What the Law of Return tells us is that to share the Jewish faith one need not be halachically [according to Jewish law] Jewish,” she said in an interview here while attending the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.
Under the Law of Return, grandchildren of Jews are granted automatic citizenship even if neither of their parents is Jewish. Under Orthodox Jewish law, only the child of a Jewish mother or a convert is considered a Jew.
“I don’t want to see a change in the Law of Return” to make it conform to the Orthodox definition of a Jew, said Tamir. “Israel can’t take that approach because it would alienate Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. It would change our understanding of what it means to be a member of the Jewish people. Like many other nations, we see ourselves as a community that shares a particular history and a perception of a shared future that is not necessarily grounded in religious affiliation.”
She said that in formulating its definition of a Jew for the purposes of the Law of Return, Israel’s leaders saw their country as a “shelter rather than as a religious-oriented state. It allowed as a definition that those who could be persecuted as Jews could become members” of the state.
Tamir added that it is “quite clear that many Jews who see themselves as belonging to the Jewish people are not halachically Jewish. But at the end of the day, there will be a new understanding of the Jewish existence in Israel, one that will be more social. Israel will be forced to recognize that the Law of Return defines the State of Israel by a common history and not a common religion.”
The executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, Jerome Epstein, said that suggestion would be fine for “civil purposes, but it will not resolve the religious issue” in terms of marriage and other religious functions. “I don’t want to be put in a position where my child comes to me and says she is marrying a Jew and I have to ask, ‘By whose standards?’” he said.
Tamir said she knows that this approach would be a “huge change, but it’s happening already in the diaspora.”
Calls for a change in the Law of Return are coming from Orthodox Jews inside and outside of Israel.
Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, said he believed “the Law of Return should be amended to allow only halachic Jews to enter Israel.” And Shas party head Eli Yishai issued a similar call Monday. He said the Law of Return “should be for the child of a Jewish mother, or if it is the father [who is Jewish] then via halachic conversion.”
Tamir, 45, was born in Israel to parents who are also sabras. Divorced and the mother of two, she was a founding member of the Peace Now movement in Israel in 1978. She also chaired the Civil Rights Association in Israel, which deals with human rights issues.
She earned a doctorate in political philosophy from Oxford University and taught at both Princeton and Harvard universities until returning to Israel in 1995. Until her appointment as absorption minister, Tamir had been a professor of political philosophy at Tel Aviv University.
It was after her return to Israel in 1995 that Tamir said she came to know Ehud Barak while working for him in the Labor Party. She said that after Barak’s election as prime minister, she accepted the post of absorption minister to “do something that has impact on social activity and social welfare, issues I had been working on for years.”
She said, for instance, that she is working to eliminate the 10 caravan sites in which 4,000 Ethiopian Jews now live and move them to established neighborhoods, where they can become part of Israeli society. Tamir said she planned also to eliminate the “inner city slum” conditions in which many Ethiopians now live.
“We are creating a task force to consolidate the efforts of all ministries and external support from the [American Jewish] Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency and others,” she said.
The goal is to put together efforts that would create for them better housing, education and employment opportunities, said Tamir.
She said also that her ministry would be involved in the Birthright Israel project in which 6,000 Jewish college students from the diaspora will receive a free trip to Israel beginning late next month. At her suggestion, she said, these young people would meet recent immigrants in order to enrich their experience in the Jewish state.
The young immigrants would tour the country with the diaspora Jews and “share their experiences of making aliyah.” Tamir said she believes this “personal engagement” will prove beneficial for both groups.