• ISRAEL \ Mar 21, 2001
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    Israeli Law of Return dries up for families of Christian converts
Israeli Law of Return dries up for families of Christian converts
In the coming year, the number of new immigrants arriving in Israel under the Law of Return is expected to drop significantly. The reason: The implementation of the reinterpretation of the Law of Return recently decided on by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein.

Rubinstein was responding to the issue of the "ger hagorer" - the convert to Judaism who after his conversion brings to Israel, in his wake, his close and distant relatives, sometimes dozens of them, who have become eligible for immigrant status and the accompanying benefits, as though they had come to Israel under the Law of Return.

According to the new interpretation, only someone born after his mother has converted can immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

In his ruling, Rubinstein writes that "the proper interpretation of the Law of Return is that the right of return is granted to the child of a Jew who was so defined at the time of the child's birth. Therefore, someone who was born to a Jew - whose mother is a Jew or who has converted - is entitled to immigrate to Israel under the law.

"However, if his mother or father converted after his birth, he is not entitled to the rights of the Law of Return unless he himself has converted."

Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai of Shas, on Monday instructed the director of the Population Registry in the Interior Ministry, Herzl Gadj, to start implementing the amended interpretation. Yishai, who was informed about the details of Rubinstein's opinion and its significance by Gadj and Sarit Dana, legal adviser in the Interior Ministry, said yesterday that he intends to carry out the ruling faithfully. "This is a ruling which is proper and necessary, which puts a finger into the broken dam of the Law of Return," Yishai told Ha'aretz.

According to Interior Ministry statistics, there has been a sharp rise in the past decade, of dozens of percentage points, in the number of immigrants who are defined as "ger hanigrar" (who came in the wake of one family member who converted). For example, in 1995, almost 37 percent of all immigrants who arrived in the country under the Law of Return were in that category; in the first half of 2000, their number was almost 75 percent of all immigrants.

The Interior Ministry defines the change in the law as a revolution. According to Gadj, the significance of the interpretation is that there will gradually be a significant drop, of up to 50 percent, in the number of immigrants who come to Israel under the Law of Return.

However, Gadj points out, those who are not included in the Law of Return will be able to convert, or to come to Israel under the law of entry into Israel.

Rubinstein published the ruling about two weeks ago. This was done in answer to a request made about a year ago by former interior minister Natan Sharansky that Rubinstein look into the issue. Sharansky asked Rubinstein to find out whether putting a stop to the phenomenom of the "ger nigrar" requires a change in legislation, or whether the Law of Return itself provides a solution to the problem - and the law has simply been misinterpreted.

Sharansky also was briefed on the many instances of aliyah of dozens of relatives of people who had converted only after the birth of their children. In many cases, the convert brought in his wake his children, their spouses, his grandchildren and their spouses.

The main group likely to be hurt by the new interpretation are the members of the Falash Mora (Ethiopians of Jewish origin who in the past converted to Christianity), as well as foreigners who married Jews in Israel. They will no longer be able to bring their relatives to Israel under the Law of Return.

In the next few days, there will be an initial discussion in the Interior Ministry, in which rules for implementation of the new interpretation will be laid down. Professionals from the Absorption Ministry and from the Jewish Agency will participate in this discussion. Despite this, Yishai does not intend to make things hard for someone who filed a request to come on aliyah before the publication of Rubinstein's ruling. The old interpretation will still apply to such a person - his children, even if they were born after his conversion, will be able to come to Israel under the Law of Return.

In a long and detailed ruling, Rubinstein explained how he reached the conclusion that the present interpretation of the Law of Return on the subject of the "ger hagorer" is mistaken, and that it is a practice which has developed in recent years, and must be stopped.

Rubinstein looked into the matter, and found that the present practice started at the beginning of the 1980s. In his ruling, the attorney general wrote that "the practice which has taken root has been increasingly in evidence in the past decade, from two directions: on the one hand, the aliyah of the Falash Mora, some of whom converted here, and on the other - the rise in the number of foreigners who have come to Israel and converted here."

Rubinstein points out that "matters reached a point where in more than one instance, an adult converted, and brought dozens of family members in his wake, all of whom were granted the status of an oleh (new immigrant)."

It turns out that this subject was also discussed about five years ago, at the time when Yair Tzaban was the absorption minister. The attorney general at the time, Michael Ben Yair, expressed his opinion that the practice should not be stopped - even if it was mistaken - by means of a change in the interpretation of the Law of Return.

Rubinstein points out that the Law of Return, which is considered one of the Basic Laws, sets out the basic principle of the "return of the sons to their border," and the right of any Jew, anywhere, to come on aliyah. "There is no need to go into detail about the historical and spiritual significance of the law," writes Rubinstein, adding: "In the event that someone converts, and is a Jew from now on, he has a right of return, like any other Jew. But if the sons and daughters of this man, his daughters-in-law and sons-in-law, his grandchildren and their spouses, have chosen not to convert: Let them remain with their nation and their beliefs. Why should they too be considered a part of the exiled nation which is returning to its land? ... And why should they enjoy all the rights which stem from belonging to it? Is that the purpose of the Law of Return?

"In our opinion," sums up the attorney general, "with all due respect, the requisite answer is no. That is not the purpose which the law is supposed to realize. And I think we will not be exaggerating if we say that granting the right of return to such applicants even involves a certain degree of bitter irony of subverting the purpose of the law, as a result of a cynical use and a technical interpretation of a law whose essence demands a practical interpretation.