Western nations should emulate Israel’s Law of Return

The law reflects the fact that societies are stronger and healthier when they gravitate around a shared value-system.

Rafael Castro

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Greeting arriving immigrants

The Law of Return entitling Jews and descendants of Jewish grandparents to move to Israel is often misunderstood. Critics of Zionism contend that it is a “racist” law that ensconces ethnocentrism in the character of the State of Israel. Israel, according to this view, would not deserve membership in the community of enlightened liberal democracies.

This argument ignores the unique conditions of the Jewish People scattered around the globe, yet drawn to a common homeland. In addition this criticism ignores the fact that race and ethnicity are not the sole factors that determine membership of the Jewish State. Indeed, whereas Druze, Christian and Muslim Arabs are citizens of Israel, the famous Brother Daniel, who was Jewish by birth and Catholic by choice, was denied the right to move to Israel in the early 1960s.

This episode is important because it clarifies what the Law of Return de facto does – namely help build a society with shared spiritual and ethical values. Common spiritual and ethical values do not demand theological and ritual conformism. The bitter conflicts in Israel between Reform, Conservative, modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox streams of Judaism bear abundant evidence that securing religious conformism was never the goal of the Law of Return. Nevertheless the law reflects the fact that societies are stronger and healthier when they gravitate around a shared value-system.

If during the last 70 years Israel had regulated immigration according to conventional Western norms, it is virtually impossible that it would have flourished. Instead of becoming a successful melting pot where millions of Jews choose to live out of idealism and a sense of belonging, Israel would have remained an unattractive barren strip of land in the middle of hostile territories. The Law of Return is thus not only the magnet that drew Jews together to their historic homeland, but also the legal instrument that gives Israel its seal as a Jewish and democratic state.

Immigrants would need to show that they have studied and internalized the values and outlook of their host countries before they immigrate.
States that have chosen to ignore all spiritual and ethical dimensions in their regulation of immigration are paying a dear price for this mistake. Western societies are slowly sliding into communalism and sectarianism as their collective identities are diluted. Israel has never experienced this risk, despite the deep linguistic, ethnic and religious cleavages that characterized the Jewish Diaspora during over two millennia.

The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies wrote extensively during the late 19th century about the difference between societies based on impersonal relations and societies based on a shared set of values. Until the mid-to-late 20th century, European nations were to varying degrees confident about their ethos and identity. Massive immigration from cultures unable to assimilate, together with a multiculturalist ideology that denies primacy rights to national identities, has eroded social trust, hampered integration efforts and created identity crises that fan political and religious extremism.

It is for these reasons that Europe needs to learn from Israel’s immigration policies, and understand that healthy societies are more likely to flourish if newcomers already share the values and outlook of their host nation. These values and outlook need not necessarily be adhesion to a collective religious or ethnic identity (in Israel both avenues are available). However, this adhesion should be premised on demonstrable loyalty and commitment to the host country’s history, language and value-system.

If immigration policies were thus structured, it would no longer suffice to comply with bureaucratic, financial and legal hurdles to call a new country home. Immigrants would need to show that they have studied and internalized the values and outlook of their host countries before they immigrate.

These measures were not necessary in the past, even though historically Europe and America were the theater of large population movements. French Protestants moved to Germany and the Low Countries starting from the 16th century, Poles moved to the Rhineland throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, just like Eastern European Jews, Italians and Spaniards moved to France, Germany, Switzerland and America. All these immigration waves were successfully absorbed. Yet the factors that made these assimilation processes successful no longer exist.

In a globalized planet assimilation is increasingly difficult. As travel to and from the homeland becomes faster and cheaper; as digital communications allow information to be relayed without filters; and as relatively generous welfare payments make the cost of unemployment bearable, newcomers to Europe and America have fewer reasons than ever to assimilate. Religious and ethnic barriers only serve to compound the ensuing self-segregation and social alienation.

These are the reasons that demonstrate the wisdom and foresight of Israel’s founding fathers in enacting the Law of Return. North Americans and Europeans should humbly recognize that despite possessing far fewer resources, Israel has absorbed and integrated its recently-arrived citizens far more effectively. Western nations would do well to understand how this was achieved in order to repair their unwise immigration policies.