Module 5: The Law of Return

Core Learnings: 
The Law of Return guarantees the right of any Jew to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen.
Under the Law of Return, individuals' rights are determined based on a complex set of parameters that do not mirror other common definitions of "Who is a Jew?"


A group of "olim" (immigrants to Israel) landing at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel.

Part 1: Understanding the Law of Return

We will be working with Handouts 5a and 5b, which contain the text of the Law of Return and information about the Rufeisen Case.

Introducing the Law of Return

  1. The Law of Return, enacted by the Knesset in 1950 to encourage Jews to immigrate to Israel, is a fundamental building block of Israeli society.
  2. After reading the text of the Law of Return, participants will consider how it is applied, the role of the Supreme Court in its application, and the reality of limiting free immigration to certain people. Israel's immigration policies will be compared to those of the United States.

Activity #1: Initial Discussion of the Law of Return (20-25 min.)

A. Understanding the Law of Return

  1. Ask participants to describe the Law of Return, and see what definitions are offered. Push them to get specific about to whom the law applies.
  2. Read the text of the Law of Return together in Handout 5a. Make sure to explain/discuss each portion and its meaning.

B.  Initial Discussion of the Law

  1. Why was the Law of Return passed in 1950? Do you think it was necessary?
  2. How does the Law of Return actually work?
    • The oleh (immigrant) is granted an immigrant visa and identity card, which allows him or her to settle and work in Israel; it doesn’t actually confer citizenship but rather streamlines the path toward citizenship, which is addressed under a different law. The Law of Return makes the path toward citizenship quick and easy.
  3. Do you think comparable laws exist in other countries? Why or why not?
  4. Are there any ways in which this law appears to contradict or conflict with the democratic nature of the Jewish state?
    • Can a democracy allow preferential treatment like this?
    • What groups are denied the quick path to citizenship under the Law?

C. Personal Definition of What it Means to be Jewish

  1. Ask everyone to jot down their ideas about the definition of being Jewish, and to whom the law applies. Discuss.
  2. Transition to the Rufeisen case.

Activity #2: The Rufeisen Case (10-20 min.)

A. Explain the Facts of the Rufeisen Case

  1. Participants read the description in Handout 5b silently.
  2. Participants work on the in-text questions as they read.

​B. Initial Discussion of the Rufeisen Case

  1. Discuss the in-text questions from Handout 5b.
  2. Introduce the homework.


As listed in Handout 5b, ask everyone to reach their own conclusion in the Rufeisen Case and write several paragraphs in defense of their decision.

Part 2: Debating the Law of Return

We will be working with Handout 5c, which contains the rulings of the Justices in the Rufeisen case and excerpts from the amended Law of Return.

Activity #1 Rufeisen Debate (15-20 min.)

A. The Rules of the Debate

A variety of debate structures can be used. Here are some suggestions:

1. Ask the group to split up between those who would allow Rufeisen to immigrate based on the Law of Return and those who would not. Begin with one side presenting an argument in favor of its position. Allow the other side to respond with a counter-argument and allow the initial side to rebut. For the next round, start with the opposing side and do the same thing. Go through several rounds and ensure that some solid arguments get discussed. List key arguments on the board.

2. Ask for two volunteers from each side of the debate to come to the front of the room and have a polite back and forth about the arguments in the case. Once they have exhausted their line of thinking, ask for another pair. If it gets repetitive, make sure to insert questions about historical precedent, religious precedent, and similar situations.

B. Run the Debate

Determine how much time will be devoted to the debate, and try to ensure that strong arguments are made.

C. Take a Vote

  1. Would the majority vote to allow Rufeisen in or not?
  2. Transition to the actual results of the case in Handout 5c.

Activity #2: Concluding Discussion about the Rufeisen Case (10-15 min.)

A. Explain the Court’s Decision in the Rufeisen Case

  1. Reveal the majority decision. Then read aloud some of the justifications for it. Encourage everyone to take notes.
  2. Next, read some of the minority justifications. Make sure everyone understands the arguments advanced by the Justices.
  3. Lastly, read the revisions to the Law of Return.

B. Concluding Discussion: Questions to Pose

  1. Do you find the majority or the minority opinion more convincing? Why?
  2. How might you defend the revised Law of Return? Why does it need to exist?
  3. How might you criticize this Law?
  • This might be a good time to bring up the contrast to the Palestinians' demand for a right of return, which Israel rejects, even in situations where Palestinians who live outside of Israel and have land deeds in Israel are not allowed to go back.

     4. Is the Law of Return compatible with Israeli democracy? Why, or why not?  This is the big question and the group can spend the bulk of its time exploring this issue.

Homework Assignment: Distribute copies of (or links to) the three perspectives on the Law of Return found in the Supporting Materials (from the Guardian, the Daily Beast and the New York Times). Ask participants to read the articles and select one compelling argument or example from each one. Using those compelling arguments or examples, they should write a brief (250 word) statement on the Law of Return that does one of the following:

  1. Justifies its existence in a Jewish and democratic state
  2. Argues that it is incompatible with a Jewish and democratic state
  3. Advances a proposal for amending or adjusting it in order to make it compatible with a Jewish and democatic state.

There are many opportunities to expand your group's knowledge and understanding of key issues at the core of Israeli society and its identity as a Jewish and democratic state.  

Beyond the understanding of the finer points of the Law of Return, participants will gain new insights into the complex realities that emerge when a policy or law - however well intended - is put to the test in the real world. This, perhaps, is the most significant takeaway from this module.

Background Information: 

According to Israel's Declaration of Independence, “The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews and for the ingathering of exiles from all countries of their dispersion.” The Law of Return (1950) codifies this mission by granting Jews from anywhere in the world the right to settle in Israel and gain citizenship.

The Law describes the process of gaining citizenship by receiving Oleh (Immigrant) status as a first step toward citizenship.

The Law of Return sought to provide Jews with an immediate safe haven following the Holocaust, without any immigration restrictions. Another goal was to ensure a Jewish majority in the State of Israel by promoting Aliyah (immigration.)

The Law of Return did not define who is a Jew for the purposes of immigration. The 1970 amendment to the Law defined a Jew as someone who has a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism, and is not a member of another religion. The 1970 amendment also expanded eligibility to include a Jew's spouse, children (and their spouses), and grandchildren (and their spouses.)