Zionist ideology was premised upon the reconstitution of the Jews as a free, self-determining nation in their own state. In recognition of this aspiration, Israel’s Declaration of Independence declared that “The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews and for the ingathering of exiles from all countries of their dispersion.” In 1950, this principle was given shape as the Law of Return, enshrining this Zionist principle within Israeli law. The Law of Return grants every Jew in the world the automatic right to immigrate to Israel – in Hebrew called aliyah – and immediately become a citizen of the state. Non-Jews are also eligible to become citizens under naturalization procedures similar to those in other countries. For example, Germany, Greece, Ireland, and Finland have special categories of people who are entitled to citizenship.
By contrast, Arab states define citizenship strictly by native parentage. It is almost impossible to become a naturalized citizen in Arab states such as Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Several Arab nations have laws that facilitate the naturalization of foreign Arabs, with the specific exception of Palestinians. Jordan, on the other hand, instituted its own “law of return” in 1954, according citizenship to all former residents of Palestine, except for Jews and Gazans. In 2004, however, Jordan began revoking the citizenship of Palestinians who lacked Israeli permits to reside in the West Bank
The Law of Return did not arise from ideology alone; it was also a practical measure. In the wake of the Holocaust, the first act of the new Israeli government was to abolish all restrictions on Jewish immigration. Israel, the government declared, would provide Jews the world over with a haven from anti-Semitism.
There has long been a fierce debate surrounding the question of “Who is a Jew,” and, by extension, who is eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return. After a number of court cases and amendments, the law was changed in 1970 under the stewardship of Prime Minister Golda Meir to stipulate what exactly the government meant by
every Jew. The amendment stated that
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, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion qualified for immediate citizenship.
To make matters more complicated, the Israeli Rabbinate, a purely Orthodox body, is far more stringent about its definition of who is a Jew, leaving thousands of “Jewish” immigrants ineligible for marriage and unrecognized by the state authorities.
The Law of Return has also functioned as a means of maintaining a Jewish majority within the State of Israel by promoting aliyah. During the 1940s and 50s, Israel’s population balance was decisively shifted through the immigration of millions of Jews. Today, 74 percent of Israel’s citizens are Jewish.