Amnon Rubinstein
January 4, 2000

The Law of Return, passed by general consent in 1950, has recently become the core of a two-sided dispute: on the one hand, some argue - mostly in Ultra-Orthodox circles - that the wording is too broad and allows immigration and citizenship rights to people who are not considered halachically Jewish.

Others, mainly from the Arab parties and non-Zionist left wing, argue that the Law of Return is discriminatory and contradicts the essence of Israel as a democratic state. Even a sworn Zionist like Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg has said he finds the Law of Return to be "problematic."

The truth is that the Law of Return has parallels in other countries. Most notable among them is the law of return included in Section 116 of the Federal Republic of Germany's constitution. This section confers automatic citizenship on hundreds of people of "ethnic German origin" who were expelled from their homes in the former Soviet Union. The German law of return is stricter in terms of the laws of equality than the Israeli version, because in the past the German version had ruled out citizenship for millions of people of foreign origin who were born in Germany.

The German law of return is not unusual. Nearly all of the Balkan and Baltic countries have laws of return known as repatriation laws. For example, Section 375 of the Greek citizenship law confers automatic citizenship to people "of Greek nationality" if they enlist in military service. Section 25(1) of the Bulgarian constitution enables someone of "Bulgarian origin" to obtain Bulgarian citizenship via a special, easy procedure. Section 13(3) of the Armenian constitution confers automatic citizenship on a "native Armenian" living in the Armenian republic.

It should be noted that these countries differentiate between nationality and citizenship and the compromise between the two approaches - a national state and equality of all citizens - is made by combining the definition of the state as a state of the ethnic nationality and the promise of equal rights for all citizens.

Interestingly enough, even in countries where no emphasis is placed on the issue of a ruling nationality, the issue of return arises wherever a national diaspora community exists. This is the case with Italy, which confers in Section 18 of its citizenship law, citizenship on all Italians exiled from areas that were under Austrian rule before 1920.

In Finland, equal rights is a legislative fundamental. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a demand arose for the return to their homeland of Russian citizens of Finnish origin who lived in Karelia, which Finland was forced to relinquish. Section 18a of the Finnish foreigners' law states that a person from the Soviet Union who "is of Finnish origin" may receive permission for permanent residence in Finland (which is a condition for citizenship). The law defines a person of "Finnish origin" as a person whose parents or at least two grandparents were registered as Finnish citizens or as someone with a strong link to Finland but who is unable to provide documents proving their origins as such. Permanent resident status is also conferred on the applicant's spouse and their children. Section 14a of the Irish citizenship law of 1986 also grants the interior minister authority to confer automatic citizenship on any applicant of "Irish origin or affiliation."

How is it that these laws of return are not disqualified by the European Court for Human Rights? Because international law recognizes the right of countries to adopt immigration and citizenship policies that benefit a given people, provided they do not discriminate against a particular people. These are, as mentioned, repatriation laws.

The Soviet Union repatriated to Armenia a quarter of a million people of Armenian origin who were not citizens or residents of Armenia beforehand.

The problem in Israel is not, therefore, the existence of the Law of Return, but rather the absence of a practical option for non-Jews to become citizens. This flaw, including the negating of citizenship of Israeli citizens' spouses and children and of the great-grandchildren of Jews, eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, is what needs to be amended. It, and not the Law of Return itself, is the problem.


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