CounterPunch / February 17, 2023
Last month, Morton Klein, the national President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) issued a panicked statement concerning the impending “de-Judaization” of the Jewish State. The culprit turns out to be none other than Israel’s notorious and racist “Law of Return,” adopted in 1950. An amendment in 1970 allowed anyone worldwide who has one Jewish grandparent, including the non-Jewish spouse and children and grandchildren of such a person and their spouses, to become colonists in Israel and to obtain Israeli citizenship.
The ZOA statement declares with dismay that the 1970 amendment has allowed half a million “non-Jews” from the former Soviet Union (FSU) to settle in the Jewish State. The ZOA’s disquiet and sense of dread is caused by reports based on Israeli government data that “largely as a result of the grandparent clause, over 50% of all immigrants to the Jewish state last year were non-Jews, and 72% of immigrants from FSU countries into the Jewish state today are non-Jews.” The Zionist group warned that “this is causing a significant drop in the percentage of Jews living in Israel, endangering Israel’s continuity as the Jewish state.” The ZOA is alarmed that “the Jewish state’s Jewish majority has been shrinking at a rate of 1% every 3 years” such that “over the past 30 years, the Jewish state’s Jewish majority shrunk by 10%; and now stands at only 73.6%, reduced from 84%.”
This appalling situation means, according to the ZOA, that “non-Jews will have even more influence on determining the Jewish state’s leaders, laws and security decisions,” and that “Diaspora Jews who need or who want to live in the Jewish homeland may be moving to a majority non-Jewish state in the future.”
As the “grandparent clause” has been primarily a vehicle for claimants to Jewishness from the former Soviet Union, who are the majority of those who use it to colonize Palestine, the ZOA insists that canceling the clause would not affect American Jews, with whom the organization is primarily concerned. In the last decade, the ZOA affirms, no more than 67 American non-Jews made use of the clause. At issue for the ZOA is the definition of “who is a Jew,” especially as “no branch of Judaism defines ‘who is a Jew’ to include non-Jews who have a single Jewish grandparent.”
The ZOA is of course correct that Judaism defines Jews as those who have a Jewish mother or who have converted to Judaism in accordance with Jewish religious law. In fact, the only more expansive definition of Jews that preceded the 1970 Israeli amendment, was in the 1935 Nazi Nuremberg laws, which defined a Jew as someone who had at least one Jewish grandparent.
In Israel “There is a widely held belief that the 1970 amendment, with its ‘grandchild clause,’ was inspired by the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws.” It is in fact seen as “a kind of mirror image” of the Nazi laws. The Nuremberg laws’ expansive definition, however, was more limited than the Israeli law. According to the Nazis, a full Jew was one who had three or four Jewish grandparents.
People with one or two Jewish grandparents were considered “mischlinge” or “mongrels,” and were not fully subject to Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic regulations. Indeed, many of those designated as “mischlinge” were, like German Aryans, conscripted into and served in the German army during World War II. What is remarkable, however, is the similarity of the definition of a Jew that the 1970 Israeli amendment adopted to the Nazi precedent.
The irony of the racist Nuremberg laws is that their definition of Jews relied on religion, not race: if one’s grandparents had been Jewish converts to Christianity, and one’s parents had therefore been born into the Christian faith, then, unless, the grandchild adopted Judaism, s/he would be considered an Aryan. This meant that, according to the Nazis, conversion out of Judaism was the optimal criterion to determine non-Jewishness over three generations. Interestingly, Israeli law would also adopt a similar, if not a more restrictive criterion to establish non-Jewishness for Jewish applicants to settle in Israel.
When in 1959 Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Jewish Zionist and Holocaust survivor who had converted to Catholicism during the war, came to Israel, he was denied the right to Israeli citizenship based on the Law of Return – as he was no longer considered to be of Jewish nationality following his conversion. Rufeisen appealed the decision, especially as Orthodox Judaism considers Jews who convert to other religions as still Jewish. Since Israel’s Law of Return had relied on Orthodox Judaism’s Halachic definition of who is a Jew, the Israeli legal decision was seemingly in violation of it and reminiscent again of the Nazi precedent, albeit more stringently.
In 1962, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld the decision to deny Rufeisen’s appeal. Rufeisen insisted that “My ethnic origin is and always will be Jewish. I have no other nationality. If I am not a Jew, what am I? I did not accept Christianity to leave my people. I added it to my Judaism. I feel as a Jew.” Here Israel’s courts seemed to couple race and religion as the criteria for Jewishness.
Zionism’s embrace of the concept of race and its identification of Jews as a separate race was part and parcel of its project since the beginning of the 20th century. This commitment to racial science has never abated. In 2017, a group of Israeli Jewish experts on genetics and Israeli religious law were excited at the possibility of identifying a phantasmatic “Jewish gene” so as to identify Jews more easily in line with Jewish religious law. This was already seen then as resolving the problems facing “immigrants and especially those from the former Soviet Union, who don’t have the necessary documents.”
Israel also imposed racial-ethnic criteria on the Palestinian population it conquered soon after its establishment. It divided the Palestinians into Arabs, Muslim and Christian, and excluded Druze and Bedouin Palestinians from the category of “Arabs.” Indeed, Israel conscripts the de-Arabized Druze Palestinians to serve in its army, and boasts that they reach the highest ranks. This is not unlike how the Nazis conscripted the half- and quarter-Jewish “mischlinge” into the German army. A number of “mischlinge,” like field marshal and war criminal Erhard Milch, held high positions in the German armed forces. As journalist Eetta Prince-Gibson explains “the existence of Mischlinge, and the fact that Jews served even within the highest ranks of Nazism itself, provide further proof that for the Nazis, as for many of their victims, the term Jew was merely a social construction.”
Her explication equally applies to Israeli notions of Jewishness, as well as of Arabness and Druzeness. These definitions have always been subject to manipulation via Israeli propaganda and law in order to suit Zionism’s political ends.
The most important aspect of Israel’s Law of Return is of course its racist stipulations granting non-citizen Jews worldwide the right to colonize the land of the Palestinians and its denial of that right to the indigenous Palestinians whom Israel expelled or of those it was not able to expel. But that is of course not what worries the ZOA.
The ZOA’s statement concludes by demanding the “elimination or modification/reform of the grandparent clause. We must do everything we can to ensure that the Jewish state remains Jewish.” It is not clear what the ZOA means by “everything.” The statement stops short of explicitly demanding that Israel expel the half a million European “non-Jewish” colonists, as Israel had done with the native Palestinians; and it is not clear if the statement is demanding that the “elimination” of the clause be applied retroactively in order to denationalize these “non-Jews” as a prelude to expulsion.
The ZOA is right to worry. Jews became a minority in the land of the Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea some five years ago. If Palestinians were to accept the ZOA definition of who is or is not a Jew, then Palestinians have been outnumbering their Jewish colonizers for much longer still.
The Zionist conquest and ethnic cleansing that established a Jewish majority in Palestine after 1948 has failed in maintaining that majority. The only way it can be restored is for Israel to heed both the calls of Israeli politicians to expel more Palestinians and those of the ZOA to stem the tide of Russian “non-Jews.” Short of that, the ZOA and American Jewish Zionists have no choice but to accept these facts on the ground, which render a Jewish state in Palestine unrealistic and unviable.
Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York; he is the author of Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism