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Israelis Debate Immigration Laws

November 29, 1999

JERUSALEM (AP) _ The bedrock of the Jewish state _ a law that grants Israeli citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent _ is coming under the harshest attack in years, amid allegations it has enabled hundreds of thousands of non-Jews to immigrate.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, with the support of some government officials, proposed this week that the Law of Return be tightened. ``Even sacred cows are slaughtered sometimes,″ Rahamim Malul, a lawmaker from the religious Shas party, asserted Monday.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak staunchly opposes restricting immigration, angrily insisting at a Cabinet session Sunday that the law would not be amended as long as he is prime minister.

The debate reflects the disagreement between secular Zionists and observant Jews about what Israel should look like. For the religious, the most important value is to preserve the Jewish character of Israel, while Zionists believe immigration should be encouraged at all costs.

The recent debate was triggered by figures showing that non-Jews outnumbered Jews, 55 percent to 45 percent, among immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the first three months of 1999.

Rabbis have complained that the influx of non-Jews has led to a proliferation of butcher shops selling pork, despite religious laws that prohibit Jews from eating it. Others warn that non-Jews from the former Soviet Union, estimated at 225,000 of Israel’s 6 million citizens, are amassing increasing political clout.

``The loopholes in the law must be closed,″ warned Malul, ``so that the state will not turn into a country where a large percentage of its citizens are gentiles.″

The Law of Return was conceived five decades ago, when Israel was a poor, besieged, fledgling nation where survivors of Holocaust-ravaged Europe and Jews from Arab countries sought shelter.

Now that Israel is a prosperous country with a per capita income on a European scale, some fear non-Jews from economically depressed areas may be lured by generous government benefits for newcomers.

Faced with the statistics, officials in the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption have drawn up a proposal for restricting non-Jewish immigration. It aims at reducing the number of non-Jewish descendants who can gain automatic citizenship because of a distant Jewish ancestor.

However, ministry spokeswoman Michal Aharoni said the proposal ``will never be the policy of the ministry.″ The minister for immigrant absorption, Yuli Tamir, opposes restrictions on immigration.

Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon said the Law of Return is the basis of the Jewish state, offering a home to Jews ``in the wide definition and not the narrow religious definition.″

Under religious law, a person is a Jew if his mother is Jewish. The Law of Return recognizes a much wider category as eligible for citizenship. Ramon said experience shows that even those who are technically non-Jewish ``become good Jews in a few years.″

Yet even some immigrants from the former Soviet Union feel it is time to make changes. Yuri Stern, a member of parliament from Israel Beiteinu, a party representing the immigrants, said those with no link to the Jewish people must be stopped from immigrating.

Though his party stands to benefit from additional immigrant votes, Jewish or not, Stern warned that Israel could face a demographic problem if no changes are made.

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