The State of Israel and the Jewish People in the Diaspora

I believe that the time has come within Israeli internal politics for every sector and tribe to set aside the inter-sectoral conflicts of the past and to think about how we – together – can ensure the future of all Israeli citizens and the state’s continued connection with Diaspora Jewry.

After 75 years of sovereign existence, the State of Israel is an integral part of the identity of European Jews, both religious and secular. Many sons and daughters of the European Jewish communities hold Israeli citizenship in addition to European, and this gives them a strong sense of belonging to Israel. Unlike the Jews of the United States and the Americas, only a minority of whom have visited Israel, many European Jews are frequent visitors to the country. Family connections and geographic proximity play a role in this, making Israel a destination for tourism, business, and family visits. Concerns about growing antisemitism in Europe are also strengthening European Jewry’s ties to Israel.

The proximity and the frequent visits thus strengthen these Jews’ sense of belonging to Israel, as well as their Jewish identity. For a significant proportion of European Jews, Israel is a source of pride. It is the Start-Up Nation where the Jewish genius is actualized, the country that defeated the coronavirus, and the state whose mighty army defends its citizens while also projecting its power onto world Jewry as a whole. All these things are generating change in the European Jew’s self-image – from powerless intellectual to hero defending his people. This in spite of the discomfort many of these Jews feel regarding the continued occupation of Judea and Samaria and the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A telling example of change in Israel-Diaspora relations is the Foreign Agunot Law or, by its official name: the Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction (Marriage and Divorce) Law (Amendment No. 4 and Temporary Order), 5778-2018. The Conference of European Rabbis advanced this legislation in the Knesset in cooperation with the rabbinical courts administration. The law expands the jurisdiction of Israel’s rabbinical courts when there are concerns of aginut (a situation where a spouse is “chained” to a marriage), even when the spouses in question are not Israeli citizens or residents. The law’s rationale is based on what was noted above: many European Jews have ties to Israel and visit the country, or expect to do so in the future. This being the case, and per the above logic, Israeli court sanctions would be able to exert pressure on men who refuse to grant their wives a divorce. To date, dozens of cases of aginut have been resolved by means of this law.

Israel’s decisions and actions on geopolitical issues also affect European Jewry. The existence of relatively small communities within populations where certain subgroups are hostile to Israel raises widespread concern about the growth of Israel-focused antisemitism that in some cases targets the members of European Jewish communities. Israel must be mindful of the consequences of its decisions not only for Israeli citizens, but also for Diaspora Jewry and especially for European Jewry, which has greater exposure to antisemitism than other communities and which looks to Israel on this matter.


Another issue of concern to European Jewry is the Israeli debate over “who is a Jew” and the proposals to amend the Law of Return. The Law of Return is of crucial importance as it connects the state of the Jews with the Jewish religion and with the Jewish Diaspora. Indeed, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion stated during Knesset discussions on the Law of Return that the law expresses “the State of Israel’s character and special mission, as the state that bears the vision of the Jewish people’s redemption (Knesset Plenary Records, 3.7.1950). That is why today’s debate over changes to the law arouse great interest within European Jewish communities.

The Law of Return states that a Jew’s right to make Aliyah to Israel is also vested in “a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew.” That is, those eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return include the entire “third generation,” i.e., the grandchildren of Jews, together with their families.

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and the tens of thousands of refugees who fled the fighting, one side of the debate demands that Israel extend immigration rights to fourth-generation descendants of Jews, i.e., to the great-grandchildren of a Jewish person. Those opposed to this view want to curtail the Law of Return’s applicability by removing the “grandchild clause” and allowing immigration only to Jews and their children, but not to the following generation.

The Law of Return in its present form is, in fact, a hard-to-understand paradox. While someone who was born a Jew but converted to a different faith loses his right to immigrate to Israel, as the law excludes Jewish apostates from eligibility even though they are considered Jewish according to Halacha, the grandchildren of a Jew who married a non-Jewish woman are entitled to immigrate to Israel even though they are not halachically Jewish.

One must remember that the Law of Return was enacted shortly after the founding of the state. It essentially ensures a place of refuge in Israel to all those connected with the Jewish people – the mirror image of the infamous Nuremburg Laws that designated as “Jewish” even the descendants of Jews. Much has changed since that time. Israel has grown and become a developed and highly-advanced country where many people, even if they are not Jewish, would like to live. In this new reality, the fear is that large numbers of people whose ties to Israel are exceedingly weak will come and settle here on the basis of the loophole in the Law of Return, but without any real desire to link their fate with that of the Jewish people.

I therefore believe that Israel should amend the Law of Return so that the grandchild clause will be limited solely to the grandchildren of Jews, on condition that they have no other religious affiliation.


The State of Israel’s Jewish identity, encompassing the aforementioned debate over the Law of Return, is a burning topic of discussion within Israel. This matter affects Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry and therefore requires not only debate on the domestic-Israeli level, but also discussion between Israel and all the world’s Jewish communities.

I write these lines while attending an interfaith conference in the United Arab Emirates. The Abraham Accords forged a relationship between Israel and the Gulf states and are changing the face of the Middle East. The basis for the Accords’ success is the ability of both parties to set aside the grievances, wars and conflicts of past generations and to try to map out a better future for the peoples of the region. What can be done between different peoples is surely worth doing on the Israeli domestic plane. I believe that the time has come within Israeli internal politics for every sector and tribe to set aside the inter-sectoral conflicts of the past and to think about how we – together – can ensure the future of all Israeli citizens and the state’s continued connection with Diaspora Jewry.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is President of the Conference of European Rabbis.