February 25, 2009

Adoption and the Law of Return

[Published in theThe Jewish Press Wednesday, February 25 2009.]

It may not be a "basic law," Israel's set of semi-constitutional laws, but the Law of Return is probably the most fundamental law of the state. It certainly is the most Jewish and Zionist of all Israel's laws.

The Law of Return states that "[e]very Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh." It fulfills provisions of the 1922 Palestine Mandate approved by the League of Nations, which gave international recognition to Zionism and placed a legal obligation on the then-administering power of Palestine, Britain, to provide for close settlement of the Jews in Palestine.

It also fulfills provision of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which holds that "the Jewish State would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew" and that "[t]he State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles."

The Law of Return captures the very weltanschauung of Zionism and the Jewish state. So it's no surprise that Ben-Gurion believed the Law of Return to be one of Israel's most important laws.

It is precisely because the Law of Return captures the essence of the State of Israel and the national interest of the Jewish people in the modern era that it is subject to so much controversy and attack, in and out of Israel's courts, by several groups: Israel's Christian friends, concerned about the status of messianic Jews whose missionary activity could threaten the Jewish character of the state; Israel's Arab enemies; and Israel's post-nationalist, post-Zionist academic elite who see this law, so central to the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in Israel after 2,000 years of persecution culminating in the Holocaust, as evil and racist.

The Law of Return became the subject of yet another legal controversy in Israeli courts in regards to the affects of adoption on the ability of an applicant to receive the benefits of automatic citizenship under the Law of Return.

According to Jewish law - the determining factor of Jewish identity for thousands of years - a person who is Jewish cannot become non-Jewish. The halachic definition was practically incorporated into the Law of Return by virtue of a 1970 amendment that reversed an Israeli Supreme Court decision ordering that a "subjective test" - a person's statement that he or she is Jewish - be used in determining Jewish identity.

The 1970 Amendment stated that "[f]or the purposes of this Law, 'Jew' means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and is not a member of another religion." This objective halachic definition is the one that Jews had used for thousands of years, with an understandably added stipulation against apostates.

This definition of a Jew does address the issue of adoption: It says a person is a Jew if he or she was "born to a Jewish mother" (emphasis added), specifically including people who were born to but not necessarily raised by Jewish parents.

So the case of an adopted Jew would be a no-brainer. Otherwise, Jewish children saved by Christian parents during the Holocaust - Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, for example, who was raised as a Catholic by his rescuers - could face serious problems if they wanted to make aliyah under the Law of Return.

The problem is that the adopted person at issue in the current case, Regina Bernik, is not a Jew, since it is her biological father, not her mother, who is Jewish.

Under the Law of Return, however, "the rights of an oleh are also vested in a child and grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew." (This provision was most likely aimed at ensuring that a Jew who married a non-Jew would not be deterred from making aliyah or to cover the Holocaust scenario in which a person is persecuted because of his or her Jewish blood.)

After the Ministry of the Interior rejected Bernik’s request to for citizenship under the Law of Return, Bernik petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz argued to the court that while the effect of adoption on the Law of Return was up for interpretation, the biological relation of the petitioner to a Jew should be the determining factor.

According to Ynetnews.com, the court’s judgment is due soon.

An even more pressing problem than how adoption affects the Law of Return is that over the years the Israeli Supreme Court has been eroding the objective halachic definition of a Jew by widely interpreting the definition of "conversion" so that anyone who converts to Judaism under the auspices of just about anybody can be considered a Jew.

In the case of Pessaro (Goldstein) v. Minister for the Interior (1995), the court recognized a non-Orthodox conversion performed outside Israel as a valid conversion under the Law of Return and awarded the non-Orthodox convert automatic citizenship rights under the Law.

In Pessaro, the court cited the would-be immigrant's religious rights under the rubric of what the court termed the "freedom of the convert" (a concept which never before existed in Israeli law) as support for its ruling. The court thus awarded the benefits of citizenship (rights) - the very thing at stake in the case - to non-citizens, using circular reasoning and a fantastic tautology: it recognized the petitioner as a valid convert because of his rights due to him as a valid convert.

In reaching its decision, the court rejected the dissenting opinion of Judge Tzevi Tal, who noted that even in the United States immigration law is an area in which laws are constitutionally permitted to be discriminatory and therefore the rights of the would-be immigrant were irrelevant to the case. Tal further wrote that recognizing conversions performed by any Jewish group outside of Israel - regardless of whether the group followed halachic standards for conversion - would have the practical effect of allowing any group to issue immigration visas and citizenship to the State of Israel.

It is not clear how the court will rule on the adoption case, but one thing is clear: protecting Jewish identity does not seem be among the weightiest factors influencing the court’s judgment.

CORRECTION NOTICE: This article has been revised. It originally stated that the Attorney General had said that the effect of adoption of a person born to a Jewish mother on the person’s rights under the Law of Return was up for interpretation. As noted above, the Attorney General’s statement was addressed at the rights of a non-Jew under the Law of Return by virtue of that person’s relation to a Jew, such as a Jewish father. We apologize for the error.