Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) struck a blow to one of the central pillars of Zionism Tuesday, calling for an end to automatic citizenship for Jews who make aliyah (immigrate to Israel).
Addressing the governing board of the Jewish Agency, Sheetrit said that funds should be directed to helping immigrants already living in Israel instead of absorbing “lost tribes” from Africa and Asia. “Don't go finding me any lost tribes, because I won't let them in any more," he declared. "We have enough problems in Israel. Let them go to America."
Sheetrit said that new immigrants should not automatically receive citizenship, but have a five-year waiting period, take a pledge of allegiance and pass a Hebrew-proficiency test prior to becoming Israeli.
He specifically referred to a rise in cases of neo-Nazism among Russian immigrants, some one million of which immigrated to Israel in the past 16 years. Three to four hundred thousand of the Russian immigrants are non-Jews recruited by the Jewish Agency using Jewish donor funds.
As it stands, the Law of Return, passed in 1950, mirrors the classifications of “Jewish descent” outlined in the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, with the intention that anyone who would have been persecuted as Jewish by the Nazis be granted refuge in the Jewish State.
Under this law, the Jewish Agency has been accused of taking advantage of the Law to recruit non-Jews with tenuous connections to the Jewish people – via one grandparent or the marriage of relatives to a Jew – promising them a better economic situation so as to increase the numbers of immigrants it can report having brought.
Many groups have called for the Law of Return to be amended to open Israel's doors only to those considered Jewish by Halacha (Jewish Law).
The Interior Minister is, however, calling to make aliyah harder for all Jews. The ministry proposes to change the Law of Return to reflect absorption policies of other Western countries. "I want to see that he is not a criminal, that he is learning Hebrew and that he is here for five years before receiving citizenship," Sheetrit said.
The Jewish Agency said in response that "the State of Israel must remain open to any Jew, without any conditions” and continues to support the Law of Return in its current form.
Sheetrit said the funding spent on encouraging aliyah should be used to help immigrants already living in Israel, “whose lives are miserable.”
Michael Freund, who heads the Shavei Israel organization, which assists groups of Jewish descent in converting and moving to Israel called Sheetrit’s remarks “post-Zionism in its ugliest form.”
“Essentially, Mr. Sheetrit has lost sight of what Zionism and Israel are all about. The country was founded on immigration and meant to serve as a refuge for the entire Jewish people,” Freund said. Freund pointed out that Sheetrit’s own family, immigrants from Morocco, would themselves bear the brunt of his callousness had he been Interior Minister at the time of their aliyah. “It is as if he has forgotten everything that he and his family and millions of other immigrants went through.”
Commenting on Sheetrit’s mocking of descendents of the lost ten Jewish tribes, Freund alleged that Sheetrit has refused to study the issue or even meet with members of communities such as the Bnei Menashe, who have been converting and moving to Israel from northeast India. “Sheetrit is, unfortunately, exploiting recent news reports about the discovery of neo-Nazis among recent immigrants to Israel as an excuse to keep out other unrelated groups that sincerely want to tie their fate with the people of Israel. These are apples and oranges. One has absolutely nothing to do with the other.”
Freund went one step further: “Mr. Sheetrit has no place serving in the government of a Zionist Jewish state There is a strong element of racism and ignorance that runs through Mr. Sheetrit’s thinking on this issue. A person’s country of origin or the color of their skin has nothing whatsoever to do with their Jewish identity – nor should it. The return to Zion is a Divine process that is greater than any one man or institution. And no one, not even a minister in the cabinet, can stand in its way. The return of the Bnei Menashe to Israel can and will continue."
Israel's Chief Rabbinate recognized the Bnei Menashe as "Descendants of Israel" in March, 2005 and sent a a beit din (rabbinical court) on its behalf to the region to formally convert them to Judaism.