Israel Enacts the Law of Return Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Law of Return stated that any Jew wishing to immigrate to Israel had a right to do so, and that any Jew exercising that right would immediately become a citizen at the moment of arrival. The law was the centerpiece of an Israeli policy designed to ensure that the nation would always have a majority Jewish population and that it would exist as a homeland for all Jewish people.

Summary of Event

The first step taken by the state of Israel after it had declared its independence was the repeal of all restrictions on Jewish immigration into Palestine. These restrictions had been the main bone of contention between the Jewish community in Israel and the country’s Arab inhabitants, and between the Jews and the British authorities that had governed Palestine. Israel’s proclamation of independence affirmed that Israel would be “open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion” and that this solemn intention would be incorporated into a constitution to be drawn up in the near future. The difficulty of arriving at an acceptable definition of “Jew” and the fact that the majority of Israel’s potential citizens were scattered in the Diaspora, or the dispersal of Jews from their historical homeland, prevented the adoption of a constitution conveying this intention. Law of Return, Israeli (1950) Israel;Law of Return Jews;Israel as homeland Immigration;Israel [kw]Israel Enacts the Law of Return (July 5, 1950) [kw]Law of Return, Israel Enacts the (July 5, 1950) Law of Return, Israeli (1950) Israel;Law of Return Jews;Israel as homeland Immigration;Israel [g]Middle East;July 5, 1950: Israel Enacts the Law of Return[03230] [g]Palestine;July 5, 1950: Israel Enacts the Law of Return[03230] [g]Israel;July 5, 1950: Israel Enacts the Law of Return[03230] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 5, 1950: Israel Enacts the Law of Return[03230] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;July 5, 1950: Israel Enacts the Law of Return[03230] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July 5, 1950: Israel Enacts the Law of Return[03230] Ben-Gurion, David Herzl, Theodor Zvi, Shabtay

Nevertheless, in lieu of a formal bill of rights, the Israeli supreme court granted the proclamation a quasiconstitutional status. Moreover, on July 5, 1950, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) passed unprecedented legislation regarding immigrants’ rights, entitled the Law of Return. This law stipulated that all Jews had the right to immigrate to the country and receive full citizenship immediately on arrival. In effect, this meant that the state took upon itself to supply immigrants with the full range of services necessary for their absorption. Excluded were only such Jews as were deemed by the authorities as “acting against the Jewish nation” or as constituting a threat to “public health or State security.” Sometime later, an additional category was added of Jews fleeing specified kinds of criminal prosecution.

The significance of the Law of Return did not reside only in the unparalleled scope of the rights it guaranteed but also in its Zionist Zionism solution for the “Jewish problem.” Despite their expulsion from their land by the Romans nearly two thousand years before, the Jews had retained almost all the attributes associated with the concept of “nation”: a historical consciousness of being one people, an association with a specific territory, a common culture (including language), and the possession of, or at least the aspiration for, political independence.

These factors explained the persistence of the yearning to return to the land of Israel expressed in religious prayers and rituals and in secular literature. Indeed, from time to time there were eruptions of messianic fervor and even attempts at large-scale return, the best known of which was that of the seventeenth century self-proclaimed messiah Shabtay Zvi and his followers. Zionism can be interpreted as a secular variant of such messianism. It was, however, also an expression of the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against other solutions proposed at the time for the Jewish problem.

The growth of the ideas of citizenship and civil rights and the incorporation of minorities into national life confronted the Jews of Europe with the need to define their relationship to the societies in which they lived. Against this background, four distinct approaches developed. One involved assimilation Assimilation ; Jews would merge as individuals into the general population, enjoying the same public privileges and duties while retaining their own private beliefs. This approach was summed up in a well-known dictum: “Be a Jew in your home and an ordinary human being outside it.”

A variant of assimilation was advocated by socialists Socialism ranging from Karl Marx to Leon Trotsky, as well as by specifically Jewish socialist movements. These thinkers envisaged the transcendence of all religions and national movements under the aegis of universal social order in which Jews would no longer be distinguishable. Another solution was that of Reform Judaism. This sought to dissolve the cultural walls that isolated Jews, thereby allowing modern non-Jewish practices and ideas to enter into the closed world of orthodox Judaism and blur the distinctiveness of the Jews.

Finally, there was the territorial solution that attracted many of the early Zionists, including Theodor Herzl, the Austrian journalist generally considered to be the father of political Zionism. The territorialists were prepared to forgo the Jews’ ancient territorial heritage in favor of any immediately available territory, such as Uganda, Azerbaijan, or parts of Argentina, which could offer a basis for a Jewish state. The common denominator of all four approaches was the readiness to sacrifice one or another of the constituent elements of the historical Jewish identity. Zionism, in contrast, insisted that the acquisition of human rights should be the result of Jewry itself and not something granted by others at the expense of some element of Jewish identity.

Contrary to the views of the assimilationists, Zionists demanded the “ingathering” of the Jews from all over the world; contrary to the reformists, they demanded the revitalization of Jewish culture; contrary to the territorialists, they insisted on a return to the land of Israel. In positive terms, Zionism’s ideal was the integration of Jewry as an independent cultural and national entity living in its historical homeland and equal in all respects to the other nations of the world. Consequently, the lever acting on the fulcrum was large-scale immigration to Palestine.

From the end of the nineteenth century, and increasingly after the British had been given a mandate by the League of Nations to govern Palestine and other parts of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, Zionist groups, “the Pioneers,” began to realize their vision by spearheading the formation of a Jewish homeland. This met, however, with growing opposition from Palestine’s British authorities and the Arab population. After Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, the right of free immigration became the focal point of dissension between the Zionists and the League of Nations powers. At the same time, the implementation of Zionism fomented Arab terrorism, which escalated in time into full-fledged civil war. Both conflicts came to a head in 1947. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority to terminate the British mandate over Palestine and to partition the country into independent Jewish and Arab states. November 30 is considered as the day when the ongoing civil war developed into Israel’s war of independence.

The enactment of the Law of Return by the Knesset of the country’s first elected government, headed by David Ben-Gurion, thus expressed the victory of Zionism over its alternatives in the Jewish world and over its British and Arab opponents. It also reflected the nature of the new state. Israeli immigration laws were designed to correspond to those of other Western countries. Residency permits would be issued to individuals on application, and full citizenship could be granted after a specified period. Since the state was considered to be the homeland of the Jewish people, however, all immigrant Jews were considered to be homecoming nationals. Other countries had similar regulations, but in Great Britain and the United States, for example, homecoming nationals were not considered as immigrants even if they were born abroad to nationals. The fact that most of the homecoming nationals in Israel were indeed immigrants and the first generation of their families to become citizens illustrated the unusual character of a state founded to normalize the status of a diasporic people.


The impact of the Law of Return can be measured in terms of its immediate, intended effects, as well as its long-term, unexpected ones. The former included the massive immigration to Israel and the prominent role of the state in bringing in and settling the immigrants. The latter involved the danger of fracturing the fused constituents of Jewish identity into separable attributes and the consequent raising of the question “Who is a Jew?”

The Jewish population of Israel increased several times over throughout the rest of the twentieth century. Some of the newcomers, in general those from affluent countries, arrived individually on their own initiative and found relatively little difficulty in integrating into Israeli society. Nevertheless, they enjoyed housing subsidies and such privileges as release from customs on imports. Most newcomers, however, were brought in organized waves or in smaller groups with few or no possessions, no capital, and often little education relevant to a modern industrial democracy.

The first wave consisted of Jews Refugees;European Jews displaced by the Nazis, many of them survivors of the death camps. Having nowhere to return to and denied entry into Western countries, most were herded into camps awaiting some resolution of their fate. Others were caught trying to smuggle themselves into Palestine and were incarcerated by the British in Kenya and Cyprus. A later wave of immigrants escaped or were expelled from Arab countries following wars between Israel and its neighbors. Later still came those escaping extreme economic hardships, as in Ethiopia, or political instability and the threat of anti-Semitism, as in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Such immigrants were treated as potential citizens even before setting foot on Israeli soil and hence were already supported abroad and transported at state expense. Immediately on arrival, the state undertook to supply virtually all of their needs, including education, health care, training, employment, and settlement in different parts of the country. This further bolstered the centrality of the state in the personal life of the citizen and, for the first generation at least, created a relationship of direct dependency.

Problems arose, because the Law of Return was a secular law and was passed by a secular parliament. The difficulty was that the term “Jew,” which was critical to the law’s interpretation, had both an ethnic and a religious meaning. In a situation in which most Jews were still in the Diaspora while most Israelis were secular and the Israeli population included non-Jews as well, the cleavage between nationalism Nationalism;Israel and religion became increasingly marked. A Jew living abroad with no intention of emigrating to Israel was still considered Jewish from the religious point of view, even if the applicability of the national aspects of the association with a specific territory, and even more the aspiration to political independence in it, was questionable.

Conversely, the population living in the Jewish state could certainly be considered Jewish in the national sense, but the applicability of the religious aspects of term was by no means assured. To offer only one illustration, in 1970 the Israeli supreme court ordered that the children of a naval officer married to a woman who was not a Jew must be registered as Jews, whereas by religious law they were considered Gentiles. Numerous efforts therefore were made by religious parties and bodies in Israel to amend the Law of Return so as to restrict its usage of the term “Jew” to apply solely to its orthodox religious sense. The implications of such a change for the interpretation of what Israel stood for and for the issue of the rights of immigration remained unclear. Law of Return, Israeli (1950) Israel;Law of Return Jews;Israel as homeland Immigration;Israel

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elazar, Daniel. Israel: Building a New Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Although not dealing directly with the Law of Return, this book provides the context needed for appreciating the law and its outcome. Especially useful is chapter 7, “Religion and the Polity.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gitelman, Zvi. Becoming Israelis: Political Resocialization of Soviet and American Immigrants. New York: Praeger, 1982. A comprehensive study, descriptive, analytical, and evaluative, of the scope and problems of immigration, absorption, and acculturation in Israel. Particularly concerned with problems relating to Jews from the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lacqueur, Walter, and Rubin Barry, eds. The Israel-Arab Reader. New York: Citadel Press, 1969. A collection of documents, including the Law of Return and those relating to its background and application. Of special relevance are sections covering the period from the pre-Zionist Yishuv settlement of Palestine to the 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lesch, Ann M., and Ian S. Lustick, eds. Exile and Return: Predicaments of Palestinians and Jews. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Collection of papers presented at two Philadelphia-area conferences in 2002 and 2003. Includes discussions of the Law of Return, the Right of Return, and Jewish and Palestinian perspectives on Israeli immigration. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liebman, Charles, and Don-Yehiya Eliezer. Religion and Politics in Israel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. An excellent study of the general topic. Of particular relevance to the Law of Return are the chapters on the meaning of “Jewish identity” for nonreligious Israeli Jews and on the institutional framework regulating the relations betwen religious and nonreligious political interest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubinstein, Amnon. “Law and Religion in Israel.” Israel Law Review 3 (1967): 380-414. A legal analysis of the Law of Return and other laws pertaining to religious practice in Israel, together with court decisions relating to their application.

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