Nationality Law



Citizenship can be granted through four ways:







Just as in the United States, if you are born to a mother or father who has Israeli citizenship, you obtain citizenship. This applies even if the subject is born outside of Israel. Even if the Israeli parent has died before the subject’s birth, they still have the right to citizenship. If you are born in Israel without nationality (as will be discussed), you must submit an application between the 18th and 25th birthday and also must have been living in Israel for the preceding five years before the submission of the application.


Immigration (The Law of Return):

The Law of Return was established on July 7, 1950 by the Knesset essentially declaring that every Jew has the right to come to Israel. An Immigrant’s Visa will be granted to every Jew who desires it and any applicant may then receive an Immigrant’s Certificate to gain citizenship. A Jew who immigrates to Israel is known as ‘oleh’. All new citizens share the same rights and are protected by the same laws as citizens who are born in Israel. The Minister of Immigration (and later the Minister of the Interior) is the only person with the power to veto an application. He would only do this on the grounds that the applicant might be a detriment to public health or safety (i.e. has an infectious illness or a criminal record). Jewish immigrants are considered to be, ‘returning from exile’ (The Impossible Dilemma, 10). It was declared by the World Zionist Organization in the Jewish Agency law on December 2, 1952 that,


“[the] World Zionist Organization, from its foundation five decades ago, headed

The movement and efforts of the Jewish people to realize the age-old vision of the return to its homeland and, with the assistance of other Jewish circles and bodies, carries the main responsibility for establishing the State of Israel, and that the World Zionist Organization as the authorized agency which will continue to operate in the State of Israel for the development and settlement of the country, absorption of immigrants from the Diaspora and the coordination of the activities in Israel of the Jewish institutions and organizations active in those fields. The mission of gathering in the exiles, which is the central task of the State of Israel and the Zionist Movement in our days, requires constant effort by the Jewish people in the Diaspora, and therefore the State of Israel expects the cooperation of all Jews, both as individuals and groups, in building up the State and assisting the immigration to it of the masses of the people, and regards the unity of all sections of Jewry as necessary for this purpose, and that the State of Israel also expects efforts on the part of the World Zionist Organization for achieving such unity, and that if, to that end, the World Zionist Organization, with the consent of the Government and the approval of the Knesset, should decide to broaden its basis, the enlarged body will enjoy the status conferred upon the World Zionist Organization in the State of Israel” (Legal Systems of Israel, 50).


However, amendments have been made to the Law of Return as will be discussed.



Citizenship was granted to anyone who was living in British Mandatory Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. Those who settled before the enactment of the Nationality Law in 1952 were also allowed to stay as citizens (Acquisition of Israeli Nationality).



The final way to gain Israeli citizenship is through naturalization. This is granted by the Minister of the Interior. Requirements for Naturalization include the following:

-residence in Israel for three years out of the five preceding submission of the application

-an intention to permanently reside in Israel post naturalization

-abandonment of former nationality to any sovereignty

*The Minister of the Interior has the right to waive any of these requirements for an applicant (Acquisition of Israeli Nationality).


The Ongoing Question and Ambiguity Associated with Nationality in Israel


Brother Daniel:

The big question is who is a Jew? Is this an ethnicity, nationality or a religion? In 1958, the Minister of the Interior (Achdut Haavoda) of the Labor Zionist Party issued a directive that, “any person declaring in good faith that he is a Jew, shall be registered as a Jew and no additional proof shall be required” (Being Israeli, 145). In January of 1960, it was decided that religion and nationality were the same. One must be a Jew by having a Jewish mother or by being an orthodox convert to be Jewish in nationality. However, two years later this simple directive was challenged. The distinction between whether one is Jewish by nationality versus religion was heavily debated (and still is) in the Brother Daniel Case (1962).

Brother Daniel was born Oswald Rufeisen in Poland (1922) to Jewish parents and was an early Zionist. After being separated from his parents he used fraudulent documents that proclaimed him as a Christian. He used this forged identification to then help Jews against the Nazis. He was however caught but escaped and survived by disguising himself as a nun. Shortly after in 1945 after living as a nun and great exposure to Christianity, he converted to Christianity and changed his name to Brother Daniel. However, after the rise of the Arab-Israeli War in 1948-9, he decided due to his heritage and deeply rooted Zionist identification (despite his new religion), that he wanted to fight for the Jews. Poland would only grant him this satisfaction if he first renounced his Polish citizenship however.

photo courtesy of www.JewishWorldReview.com

Afterwards, Brother Daniel of course wanted to be in the Population Registry as a Christian with Jewish nationality and thus receive automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. However the Minister of the Interior at the time (Israel Bar Yehuda) denied him this since he was in fact a Christian. Brother Daniel, dissatisfied with this response, petitioned the Supreme Court on March 13, 1962. This proposed the question are Jewish religion and nationality the same?

            Brother Daniel argued that he identifies himself as a Jew and fought for Israel thus his nationality, despite his religion, is Jewish. He questioned why an atheist might be granted citizenship automatically and yet a Christian could not (neither are religiously deemed Jewish). He declared:

“My religion is Catholic but my ethnic origin is and always will be Jewish. I have no other nationality. If I am not a Jew, what am I? I did not accept Chrisitanity to leave my people. It added to my Judaism. I feel as a Jew” (The Impossible Dilemma, 24).

In the end, the result was a 4-1 decision issued by Justice Moshe Silberg on November 19, 1962. The decision stated that Brother Daniel refused Jewish nationality by converting to Christianity. He ‘severed’ himself from his ‘historic past’ (The Impossible Dilemma, 26).

Despite that Brother Daniel was denied the nationality of Jewish on the Population Registry and on individual identity cards, he still had the right to attain citizenship through naturalization.


Shalit Case:

            This ambiguity of nationality versus religion debate continued when Lieutenant Benjamin Shalit tried to enter his children into the Population Registry. Shalit was a 34 year old naval psychologist born in Israel but married to a naturalized Christian wife. In 1964 he entered an application to the Population Registry for his first-born and wrote ‘Jewish’ for nationality and ‘none’ for religion. The clerk edited this and refused this nationality, replacing it with ‘not registered’. For religion, the clerk simply wrote that he was born of a Jewish father and Christian mother. In 1967, a similar situation occurred in which Shalit entered the same information for his daughter. It was edited as ‘Nationality: Jewish father; mother not Jewish’ and ‘Religion: not registered’.

            Unsatisfied with these inconsistent refusals of his children’s nationalities as Jewish, Shalit took the case to the Supreme Court in hopes that they would order the Ministry of the Interior to list his children as Jews by nationality and with no registered religion. Again the question arose of whether Jewish can be a nationality separate from religion. In 1968, the Supreme Court in Israel tried the case. Shalit of course argued that they had Jewish nationality because they identified themselves with the Jewish people: “they identified with the Jewish people, community, history, culture and sentiment” (The Impossible Dilemma, 47). Attorney General Meir Shamgar of course argued conversely that being a participant of the Jewish religion is what deems one as Jewish. One of Shalit’s most interesting arguments was that he claimed his kids had more of a right to be Jewish then Nimri, an infamous Al-Fatah terrorist who was deemed Jewish because his mother was Jewish.

            On January 23, 1970 with a vote of 5-4, Justice Yoel Sussman delivered a majority opinion:

“The determination of the affiliation of an individual to a given religion or a given nation derives principally from the subjective feeling of the person concerned. In the circumstances of the case the Registration Clerk had no option but to register the nationality of the petitioner’s children in accordance with the declaration delivered to him” (The Impossible Dilemma, 48-9).

Thus Ministry of Interior was required to accept whatever the application declared unless it is clearly false. The decision also implied that the Registry has no right to even consider the question of ‘who is a Jew?’


Israeli Supreme Court courtesy of www.thegoldenreport.com

The Law of Return is Amended…

            In 1970 the Knesset and government cabinet decided to compromise between the orthodox Rabbis’ conservatism regarding who is a Jew and the more liberal constituents who are not necessarily even Jewish. A Jew was then defined as: “A person born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism, who is not a member of another religion”. Basically this resulted in citizenship granted to people even if their mother wasn’t Jewish, but they were not granted Jewish nationality (le’um) [The Impossible Dilemma, 55]. This became law on March 10 1970 with a vote of 51-14 (with 9 abstentions). Also in 1970, the Law of Return was amended so that only one Jewish grandparent was required in order to enable someone the privileges of law. An example of the effects of this can be seen in the fact that an estimated 25% of Soviet Union Jewish immigrants were not Jews by orthodox religious standards (Being Israeli, 145).

            The debate continues however and may never truly be clarified. Orthodox parties try to restrict what it means to be a ‘Jew’ as pertains to the Law of Return (Halachah) [Being Israeli, 146]. However Jews currently don’t have to be orthodox to be considered Jewish. In 1989, Orthodox Jews almost won until American Reform and Conservative groups challenged and said they would quit giving charity if this happened (Being Israeli, 146). In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court decided that descendants who actively practice a religion other then Judaism would not be permitted to gain citizenship. Those who immigrate based on the Law of Return are then granted citizenship by the state of Israel. Again on March 31, 2005, the Law of Return was examined. On this day with a 7-4 majority, the Supreme Court ruled that any applicant who converted outside the borders of Israel would be considered and Jew and thus eligible. Obviously this was much against the desires of the Orthodox Jewish constituency as it might lead to dishonest conversions.

            Today 85% of Israel is more secular then religious but still support orthodox religious authority (which dictates many serious aspects of life (The Impossible Dilemma, 91). Although the question of what it takes to truly be ‘Jewish’ is very subjective, there have been ideas of how to resolve the debate:

“That it will be resolved in the near future, however, is unlikely. Such proposals as excluding Orthodox religious law (“halachah”) from secular legislation, acknowledging that a Jew is anyone who states he or she is a Jew, excluding or withdrawing of religious parties from politics, permitting civil marriages even in the limited area of religiously banned unions, rescinding the Law of Return, or eliminating registration entries as to nationality and perhaps also religion from the Population Register and individual identify cards are remote possibilities […] The suggestion that the word “Hebrew” replace “Jew” to designate nationality (ethnic affiliation) and be employed in a strictly secular sense may have some merit in eliminating the use of the same word for both nationality and religion, but it will not solve the basic legal dilemma” (The Impossible Dilemma, 93). Consider this ongoing controversy with the complaint by Israeli Arabs who believe that this is a form of ethnic discrimination.


Note: Applications relating to nationality can be found here.