We now return to those early years of the state, to examine related aspects of a question that would have enormous implications for the development of Israel. In the second exercise of this part of the program, we saw how the demographic picture of the Jewish world has changed over the last half-century, in the wake of the establishment of the State of Israel. In the last two exercises, we saw examples of some of the kinds of individuals who came to the country in the first years of the state. Such an enormous demographic change, of course, did not just happen: it had to be made to happen. Let us now examine some of the dynamics of that change, and explore some of the dilemmas that developed as a result.
The Holocaust decimated the world's Jews, destroying one in every three. The State of Israel was established soon after this era, and it was clear to many Jews that more changes were now needed. This was especially clear to the leaders of the Zionist movement. The time had come to start centralizing world Jewry in Israel.
There were two main reasons for doing this. One reason was to help world Jewry - to ‘save’ them - in the words of the Zionists and the leaders of Israel. To the Zionist leaders, the idea was clear. The Holocaust had proved what many Zionist thinkers had been saying for decades: life in the galut was simply not safe for Jews. The lands of the galut were not a home for the Jews, and could never be so. In those lands, there would always be anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was endemic - a part of the way in which the world works. Only by taking the Jews out of the galut and centering them in their own land would life be safe for the Jews. This was the raison d'être of Zionism: the Jews needed Israel and needed to live there.
The Declaration of Independence said it in these words:
The Nazi Holocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe, proved anew the urgency of the re-establishment of the Jewish state, which would solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates to all Jews and lifting the Jewish people to equality in the family of nations.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence
The second reason for trying to center the Jews in Israel was very different. No less than the Jews’ needing the State of Israel, the new state needed the Jews. Finally having obtained a political entity, it was necessary to fill the county with Jews in order to make it viable. A mere 650,000 Jews, the population of the state when it was declared, was insufficient. No state could function with such a small population, especially one that was threatened with constant war from its neighbors. Without a substantial increase in the Jewish population, the young state might well be doomed.
This idea, too, was echoed in the Declaration of Independence.
Our call goes out to the Jewish People all over the world to rally to our side in the task of immigration and development and to stand by us in the great struggle for the fulfillment of the dream of generations - the redemption of Israel.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence
To the leaders of the State of Israel and of the Zionist movement it was clear that the age-old idea of Jewish responsibility now sat firmly on their shoulders. They identified the future of the Jewish people with the State of Israel.
In July 1950, the Knesset discussed the idea of immigration and formulated the Law of Return, which gives the automatic right of immigration to any Jew who wishes to live in Israel, apart from certain very specific categories of Jews. The law adopted by the Knesset states the following:
1. Every Jew has the right to immigrate to the country.
2. Immigration shall be on the basis of an immigrant's visa. An immigrant's visa shall be granted to every Jew who has expressed his desire to settle in Israel, unless the Minister of Immigration is convinced that the applicant is acting against the Jewish people or is likely to endanger public health or the security of the state.
Israel’s Law of Return
In the Knesset debate that preceded the vote, Prime Minister Ben Gurion made a speech outlining the philosophy of open immigration for all Jews to the State of Israel:
The State of Israel is a state like all the other states. All the general indications (of statehood) common to the other states are also to be found in the State of Israel. It rests on a specific territory and a population existing within this territory, it possesses sovereignty in internal and external affairs, and its authority does not extend beyond its borders.
The State of Israel rules only over its own inhabitants. The Jews in the Diaspora, who are citizens of their countries and who want to remain there, have no legal or civil connection to the State of Israel and the State of Israel does not represent them from a legal standpoint. Nevertheless, the State of Israel differs from the other states both with regard to the factors involved in its establishment and to the aims of its existence. It was established merely two years ago, but its roots are grounded in the far past and it is nourished by ancient springs. Its authority is limited to the area in which its residents dwell, but its gates are open to every Jew wherever he may be. The State of Israel is not a Jewish state merely because the majority of its inhabitants are Jews. It is a state for all the Jews wherever they may be and for every Jew who so desires.
The Law of Return is one of the basic laws of the State of Israel. It comprises the central mission of our state, namely, ingathering of exiles. This law determines that it is not the state that grants the Jew from abroad the right to settle in the state. Rather, this right is inherent in him by the very fact that he is a Jew, if only he desires to join in the settlement of the land.
In the State of Israel the Jews have no right of priority over the non-Jewish citizens. The State of Israel is grounded on the full equality of rights and obligations for all its citizens. This principle was also laid down in the Proclamation of Independence... the right to return preceded the State of Israel and it is this right that built the state. This right originates in the unbroken historical connection between the people and the homeland, a connection which has also been acknowledged in actual practice by the tribunal of the peoples.
David Ben Gurion