Many of Israel's founding fathers had survived the Nazi death camps; still others had lost friends and family members in the Holocaust. They knew that tolerance was a tenuous thing, and that inquisitions, pogroms and final solutions had arisen in the most "enlightened" cultures. They wanted their new state to be a safe haven for the world's Jews whenever danger arose, and remembered how the British government had barred Jewish emigration to Palestine in 1939. Thus their "Law of Return" was a very simple one: any Jew could claim Israeli citizenship. Alas, things are rarely simply in politics or religion… never mind in a movement like Zionism, which draws from both. Today Israelis struggle with the question of "who is a Jew" and what the various answers will mean for Israel's future.
According to Talmudic law, anybody whose maternal grandmother was Jewish is halachically Jewish. The Law of Return goes beyond this standard, granting Israeli citizenship to any person with one Jewish grandparent, as well as to non-Jewish spouses of Jews; non-Jewish spouses of children of Jews; and non-Jewish spouses of non-Jewish grandchildren of Jews.. These new olim (immigrants) are entitled not only to citizenship, but to government benefits and resettlement programs. This became particularly important after the Soviet Union's political and economic collapse. Between 1989 and today some 1.5 million immigrants have come to Israel from the former Soviet states. The Soviets discouraged all forms of Jewish education, and encouraged their citizens to become part of a "greater Soviet society" - which, for all intents and purposes was a pan-Russian society. Many of these immigrants have had little formal schooling in Judaism, and consider themselves Russians first and Jews second. Some identify as Christians; a smaller but even more controversial group from Central Asia consider themselves Moslems. Many speak Russian amongst themselves, educate their children in "Russian culture" and look down upon Israeli society as "Oriental" and "provincial." Israeli society returns the favor, connecting these "Russians" with organized crime, prostitution and drunkenness.
Before the influx of Russian immigrants, there were Ethiopian Jews. Derided as Falashim (strangers, exiles) by their Ethiopian neighbors, they had always referred to themselves as Beta Israel (of the house of Israel). Some legends date the origin of the Ethiopian Jews to one of Solomon's sons who settled in what was then a thriving kingdom along with his retainers and soldiers; the Beta Israel consider themselves members of the lost Tribe of Dan. Many of these Ethiopian Jews are more observant than their secular European brethren; nevertheless, they were not officially recognized as Jews by Israeli chief rabbis until 1975. Even then, some doubts remained about their authenticity: after "Operation Moses," an airlift which rescued thousands of Ethiopian Jews fleeing famine, many were forced to undergo a ritual circumcision and "conversion bath" before being recognized as Jews. While Russian Jews who had been raised Christian were granted Israeli citizenship, many "Falash Mura" (Ethiopian Jews who had converted to Christianity under duress) languished in refugee camps when Israel refused to grant them citizenship, or even admittance into the country. Today over 35,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, where they remain among Israel's poorest and most marginalized citizens.
Any Jew can claim Israeli citizenship - and that includes those who were not born Jewish but who later converted to Judaism. Unfortunately, there is some disagreement about what constitutes a genuine conversion. In most of the world religious Judaism is Orthodox Judaism. The more open Reform and Conservative traditions are found mainly in the United States… but since the U.S. has the world's largest Jewish population, that accounts for a large number of Jews, many of whom are among Israel's most vocal supporters. In Israel conversions, weddings and funerals are in the hands of the Beit Din, or religious courts… and they have been slow to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions. They demand that converts accept the Kabbalat ot Mitzvot (yoke of the laws), including observing the Sabbath and keeping Kosher. In practice many, perhaps most, immigrants, wind up following the less-than-observant lifestyle of most Israelis after the Rabbinate quits checking up on them: still, some courts have refused to perform weddings or recognize converts as Jews because their lifestyle was not observant, or because they were converted in the U.S. by a Reform or Conservative Rabbi. There has been increasing pressure by Reform and Conservative Rabbis for a greater voice in Israel's religious courts… and increasing militancy by Israel's Orthodox courts. The Orthodox fear that if the less rigid Reform and Conservative standards can be used, it will weaken their position as arbiters of Jewish culture… and drive Israel even further toward secularism.