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Israel hopes "lost tribes" can boost Jewish numbers

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Reprinted from Middle East Eye

Facing Palestinian majority, Israeli officials seek way to loosen legal definition of "Jew"' so millions more can qualify for immigration

From Jewish immigration
Jewish immigration
(image by The Jewish Agency for Israel)
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Israel is examining ways to expand the scope of the Law of Return, a foundational piece of legislation defining who is a Jew, to entitle millions more people to immigrate.

A government committee established last month will determine whether immigration rights should be extended to "groups with ties to the Jewish people." That would include so-called "lost tribes," remote communities in India, Latin American and elsewhere that claim their ancestors were once Jewish.

The move follows a recent statement from Silvan Shalom, the interior minister and a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that he intended to take "the most liberal policy on immigration there is to bring people from everywhere around the world."

According to experts, a change to the law could mean that more than 3 million additional people would qualify to come to Israel and receive instant citizenship.

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The committee's creation appears to reflect mounting concern among officials that Israel is losing the "numbers battle" against the Palestinians. The issue has become more pressing because Netanyahu is refusing to engage in talks to end the occupation and create a Palestinian state.

A leading demographer, Sergio DellaPergola from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, warned recently that Palestinians were now a majority in the area under Israeli rule, comprising Israel and the occupied territories. Israel includes a large minority of 1.5 million Palestinian citizens.

Rates of Jewish immigration have stalled for more than a decade, while Palestinians in general continue to have a higher birth rate than Israeli Jews.

"Racist, undemocratic" law

The Law of Return, passed in 1950, restricts immigration to Israel to those the law defines as Jewish. Currently that is anyone with a Jewish grandparent. They can bring with them a spouse and any offspring, with the family qualifying for a wide range of financial benefits.

Historians have noted that the Law of Return and a separate Citizenship Law for non-Jews were crafted to ensure a strong Jewish majority was maintained after the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in the 1948 war that established Israel.

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Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, accused the government of seeking to further exploit a "racist, undemocratic law."

"The Law of Return was created specifically to allow millions of Jews who have no connection to this land to immigrate and to prevent millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants from returning to their homes," he told Middle East Eye.

"This law is immoral and gives immigrants more rights than the indigenous people. It needs to be cancelled, not changed so that Israel can bring more people here."

According to official figures, some 3 million Jews have immigrated so far to Israel under the Law of Return.

Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian and commentator, told MEE Israel hoped that "with proper indoctrination and incentives, non-Jews who are not Arab can be tempted to immigrate and add to the [demographic] balance sheet."

Widening the definition of who counted as a Jew was "yet another means of de-Arabising Palestine -- the other side of the ethnic cleansing and dispossession" that occurred in 1948.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)

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