Laws of Return
George Szamuely
New York Press


Liberal outrage invariably follows a familiar, dishonest trajectory. And nothing is more familiar and dishonest than the stodgy old New York Times. Last week the Times ran a profile of Jorg Haider, leader of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, now–following October’s elections–the country’s second largest party. The reporter made the obligatory horrified shiver as he pompously proclaimed that Haider’s "appeal against ‘overforeignization’…carries connotations of Goebbels." But what can one expect? Haider is an Austrian. And Austrians, as we are often enough told, are a morally retarded, not to say sinister, people. "The lingering suspicion of foreigners is tangible." Austrians "take out their frustration on the hundreds of thousands of foreigners living among them." Austrians tend "to feel more at ease…among themselves." We get the message.

The Austrians do not like foreigners.

Quite by chance, the very same day the Times ran a story about another people who tend to feel "more at ease among themselves." The tone, however, was very different. Under the anodyne headline–"Debate in Israel: Jewish State Or Now a Multicultural State?"–the Times insouciantly described the growing pressure within Israel to restrict immigration. Apparently a lot of non-Jews are coming into the country, particularly from Russia, and the ethnic basis of the state is under threat. The Times reporter, Deborah Sontag, correctly observes that Israel is "the Jewish homeland, established on a policy of ethnic preference." Israel’s Law of Return had enabled anyone who either had a Jewish mother or who had converted to Judaism to acquire immediate Israeli citizenship. However, in 1970 the Law was amended to enable anyone who only had a Jewish father, a Jewish grandparent or simply a Jewish spouse also to claim Israeli citizenship.

To many in Israel this change meant a dilution of the Jewish character of the state. To the Orthodox rabbinate, moreover, anyone who had converted while a Conservative or Reform rabbi was officiating was not really a Jew at all and was, therefore, not entitled to Israeli citizenship. The current target of hatred in Israel are the Russians. One Orthodox member of Parliament described the Russian non-Jews as a "fifth column." A rabbi denounced the Russians for "defiling" Israel "with their pornography, prostitution, disease and alcoholism." Now imagine how the Times would respond if an Austrian, say, or a German or a Frenchman had used this kind of language to describe immigrants! Yet the Times reporter is remarkably short on outrage. If anything, she sympathized with their complaints: "[A] relatively prosperous and even peaceful society, Israel is actually a magnet, even to those who do not feel a Zionist bond." Immigration restriction is necessary–otherwise Israel could soon "be flooded not just with non-Jews but also with those infected by the anti-Semitism in their homeland."

Archived Columns by George Szamuely

Laws of Return

Embassy Row

Selling Snake Oil

Chinese Puzzle

That Was No Lady, That Was the Times

The Red Tide Turning?

Pat & The Pod

United Fundamentalist States

Let Them All Have Nukes!

Liar, Liar

Gangster Nations

Puerto Rico Libre – and Good Riddance

Leave China Alone

A World Safe for Kleptocracy

Proud To Be

All articles reprinted with permission from the New York Press

Leave aside for the moment these fanciful and self-serving justifications. (Why on Earth would anti-Semites want to come to live in Israel?) What is clear is that, as far as the Times is concerned, the Israelis and only the Israelis are permitted to address themselves to the issue of the ethnic character of their state. Anyone else broaching the subject–a Jorg Haider, for instance–will immediately be denounced as "racist," "xenophobic," "nativist," "anti-Semitic" and drummed out of respectable society. Yet Zionism is a nationalist doctrine like any other. Its objective is to forge a state that embodies the political aspirations of its constituting nation.

Interestingly enough, there is one other country that operates a Law of Return–Germany. The German constitution granted automatic citizenship to ethnic Germans who may never have lived in Germany but were the descendants of German farmers and craftsmen who had settled in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 18th century. Liberals foam at the mouth at the mere mention of Germany’s Law of Return. Turks, who may have lived in Germany for decades, are denied citizenship, they cry in horror, while ethnic Germans collect their passports on arrival to the country. Outrageous then, that anyone should consider ethnic origin as the basis for nationhood, rather than mere physical residence. There is only one explanation for it–German "racism." Yet Germany’s Law of Return is actually more reasonable than Israel’s. Ethnic Germans, though they may have lived for centuries in Kyrgyzstan, say, will still speak German. I do not speak a word of Hebrew and have never been inside a synagogue in my life. Yet I am entitled to Israeli citizenship since my mother was Jewish.

Like the Israelis, the Germans had a rather restrictive nationality policy. Up to this year, German nationality was determined by the nationality of one’s parents, not by the place of birth. Foreign-born immigrants and their German-born children could apply for German citizenship provided they had legally resided in the country for 15 years and were prepared to renounce their original citizenship. For years liberals denounced this German system. It was based on "blood," they mumbled darkly. Under enormous foreign pressure, Chancellor Schroder’s government changed the law earlier this year. Foreigners now have the right to apply for German citizenship after eight years of legal residence. Children born in Germany to foreign parents will acquire German citizenship at birth, provided at least one parent has lived legally in Germany for a minimum of eight years. Children acquiring German citizenship at birth will have to decide before their 23rd birthday whether they want to retain their German citizenship or their parents’ citizenship except in special circumstances. There is still to be no dual citizenship.

Compare then "racist," "xenophobic," intolerant Germany or Austria with Israel. What triggered the Times article was recently published figures showing that during the first three months of 1999 non-Jews outnumbered Jews–55 percent to 45 percent–among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Panic seized the Israeli body politic. Non-Jews were acquiring too much political clout. "The loopholes in the law must be closed,’’ thundered Rahamim Malul, a lawmaker from the religious Shas party recently, "so that the state will not turn into a country where a large percentage of its citizens are gentiles."

And the loopholes are being closed. Immigration policy is increasingly restrictive. Many immigrants are unable to marry, since Orthodox rabbis (who alone are authorized to perform weddings in Israel) refuse to officiate at what they view as mixed-marriage ceremonies. An Israeli who wishes to marry a non-Jew must leave the country to marry. And even then the Interior Ministry may not accept the validity of such a marriage. Recently, it declared that non-Jewish spouses could not enter Israel under the Law of Return, but had to apply under regular immigration rules.

Every nation has the right to run its affairs the way it wishes to. We may not wish to live in Israel. But Israel is Israel; and the United States is the United States. The point is that every nation should also have the right to discuss its destiny in any manner it wishes to. It is intolerable that liberals have imposed this order whereby Israelis can happily debate the ethnic makeup of their nation while Americans who address themselves to such issues face moral opprobrium, marginalization and–who knows?–one-day imprisonment.

Back to Home Page | Contact Us