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Immigration policy | Israel |

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Immigration policy

Jan Schneider

/ 3 Minuten zu lesen

Israeli immigration policy is based on what is known as the Law of Return, adopted on 5 July 1950. This makes manifest the concept of a Jewish-Zionist state allowing, indeed suggesting, that every person in the world of Jewish origin or of the Jewish faith should return to the land of their fathers.

It literally states: "Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh" [a person entitled to immigrate]. Immigration is described as a "return" or "return to their homeland", literally an ascent (Hebr. aliyah). From the very beginning, however, the virtually unrestricted Jewish immigration did not go undisputed. In consideration of the immense challenges of integration in the early 1950s, the Israeli government attempted at times to control immigration through regulations: the young, healthy and potentially productive were to be given precedence. In practice, however, the restrictions proved hard to carry out.

In order to contend with the realities of family immigration the scope of the Law of Return was even extended, for, according to Jewish law (Halacha), a person is only Jewish if either the mother is a Jew or if the person has been converted to Judaism in accordance with the rulings of the Orthodox rabbinical court. This made family reunification more difficult. If the original version of the Law of Return already reached beyond the Halachic definition of belonging to Judaism, since 1970 immigration law has also included non-Jews if they have at least one Jewish grandparent. Spouses are also granted a legal entitlement to immigration and citizenship whether they are themselves Jewish or not.

It is not only the laws on citizenship and residence that are oriented towards immigration. In other areas too the state offers numerous incentives for potential immigrants. These include tax relief, customs privileges and material assistance with integration (see below), in particular.

The Jewish Agency is central to preparation for immigration. This is an organisation that was founded as early as 1929 and that initially worked towards the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Since Israel's independence it has primarily pursued the aim of persuading diaspora Jews to immigrate to Israel. Today it is responsible for processing all applications for immigration made by Jews outside countries of the former Soviet Union, and checks applicants' entitlement case by case. Although in terms of its legal and organisational form it is a non-state agency, the Jewish Agency effectively carries out governmental functions in this regard. It also acts as a "go-between" for money donations from Jews worldwide (especially North America) intended for the benefit of the Israeli state.

Organised actions towards mass immigration of certain Jewish communities should also be regarded as part of the Israeli immigration policy. The most prominent and significant in terms of the numbers involved was the secretly planned transfer of thousands of Jewish families from Ethiopia from the mid 1980s. Called "Beta Israel" and also known as the "Falasha", Ethiopian Jews were suppressed in the exercise of their religion under the totalitarian Mengistu regime and at times persecuted. In the state-controlled Operations "Moses" and "Joshua" in 1984/85, Israel succeeded in bringing about 8,000 Jews to Israel via Sudan. In Operation "Solomon" in 1991, a further 14,000 Ethiopian immigrants were flown to Tel Aviv.

In addition to an active immigration policy, promoting the family is one of Israel's important aims in order to secure a medium and long-term "demographic majority" and with it the Jewish character of the state against a background of high birth rates among the Arab population. The avoidance of emigration forms a third element in Israel´s population policy rationale. Attempts since the end of the 1960s to persuade, by means of special support programmes, some of the estimated 200,000 Israeli citizens living abroad to return, however, have so far yielded little success.



  1. Cf. Hacohen (2003).

  2. Entitlement to immigrate and the granting of Israeli citizenship are not, however, synonymous with recognition as a Jew under civil and family law.

  3. By contrast, to administer the immigration of Jews from countries of the former Soviet Union, the Israeli state has created additional official structures within the responsible ministry on account of the exceedingly high number of cases since the beginning of the 1990s.

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