Israel’s Law of Return

(5 July 1950)

Amended 1954, 1970

The Law of Return is the marrow of Zionism and Jewish statehood. Enacted by a unanimous vote of the Israeli legislature in 1950, it stipulates that all Jews the world over reserve the right to immigrate to Israel and to receive full Israeli citizenship. Since then, it has been amended twice: first, in 1954, to exclude Jews with a criminal history and second, in 1970, to bring closure to an open question: namely, who is a Jew? The 1970 amendment answers this tangled question by adopting the same criteria by which the Nazis’ 1935 Numerberg Decrees defined a Jew. Under this definition, a Jew is a person who descends from a Jewish grandparent or is married to one who does. 

The centrality of the Law of Return to Jewish statehood can scarcely be overstated. In Israel’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, the foundation of the Law of Return is laid in a statement of the newborn country’s objectives. It is telling that the very first item in this list concerned the principle on which the Law of Return was based two years later: 

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles.” For his part, David Ben-Gurion, who read out the Declaration of Independence in a live broadcast, considered the Law of Return the single most important law in Israeli legislation.

The Law of Return is often described by Israel’s detractors as both an anomaly in the legislation of democracies and an injustice that privileges the majority (Jews) and disadvantages the minority (Arabs and other non-Jews). Neither is true. Many other democratic nation-states–EU members Greece and Ireland, among them–have laws on the books entitling members of their diasporas to automatic citizenship. A Greek or Irish American, for instance, is eligible for citizenship in his or her ancestral homelands. Nor does the Law of Return entitle Jews in Israel to rights denied to non-Jews. The Law of Return is a piece of legislation that applies to Jews living outside Israel, not to Jews  inside the country. The celebrated Israeli jurist Aharon Barak illustrated the law’s application with an apt metaphor, describing the Law of Return as “a special key for the entrance to the house [that] is given to members of the Jewish People…but when a person is present in the house as a legal citizen, he enjoys equal rights as all other members of the house.”

Since its enactment, the Law of Return has been nothing less than the lifeline for Jews in distress, as Jews who fled persecution after the state’s establishment knew that under the Law of Return they could become instant citizens of Israel. For the Jews of  Arab and Muslim lands, the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, and Ethiopia, the Law of Return was their deliverance from exile and oppression and their path to repatriation and security.

Scott Abramson, December 21, 2023

The Law of Return 5710 (1950)*

Right of aliyah 1. Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh.
Oleh’s visa 2. (a) Aliyah shall be by oleh’s visa.(b) An oleh’s visa shall be granted to every Jew who has expressed his desire to settle in Israel, unless the Minister of Immigration is satisfied that the applicant(1) is engaged in an activity directed against the Jewish people; or(2) is likely to endanger public health or the security of the State.
Oleh’s certificate 3. (a) A Jew who has come to Israel and subsequent to his arrival has expressed his desire to settle in Israel may, while still in Israel, receive an oleh’s certificate.(b) The restrictions specified in section 2(b) shall apply also to the grant of an oleh’s certificate, but a person shall not be regarded as endangering public health on account of an illness contracted after his arrival in Israel.
Residents and persons born in this country 4. Every Jew who has immigrated into this country before the coming into force of this Law, and every Jew who was born in this country, whether before or after the coming into force of this Law, shall be deemed to be a person who has come to this country as an oleh under this Law.
Implementation and regulations 5. The Minister of Immigration is charged with the implementation of this Law and may make regulations as to any matter relating to such implementation and also as to the grant of oleh’s visas and oleh’s certificates to minors up to the age of 18 years.

Prime Minister

Minister of Immigration

Acting President of the State
Chairman of the Knesset

Law of Return (Amendment I: 5714-1954)

Amendment of
section 2(b)
1. In section 2 (b) of the Law of Return, 5710-1950(1) the full stop at the end of paragraph (2) shall be replaced by a semi-colon, and the word “or” shall be inserted thereafter ;(2) the following paragraph shall be inserted after paragraph (2):”(3) is a person with a criminal past, likely to endanger public welfare.”.
Amendment of sections
2 and 5
2. In sections 2 and 5 of the Law, the words “the Minister of Immigration” shall be replaced by the words “the Minister of the Interior”.

Prime Minister

Minister of Health
Acting Minister of the Interior

President of the State

Law of Return (Amendment II: 5730-1970)

Addition of sections 4A
and 4B
1. In the Law of Return, 5710-1950, the following sections shall be inserted after section 4:“Rights of members of family4A. (a) The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an oleh under the Nationality Law, 5712-1952, as well as the rights of an oleh under any other enactment, are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.(b) It shall be immaterial whether or not a Jew by whose right a right under subsection (a) is claimed is still alive and whether or not he has immigrated to Israel.

(c) The restrictions and conditions prescribed in respect of a Jew or an oleh by or under this Law or by the enactments referred to in subsection (a) shall also apply to a person who claims a right under subsection (a).


4B. For the purposes of this Law, “Jew” means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.”

Amendment of section 5 2. In section 5 of the Law of Return, 5710-1950, the following shall be added at the end: “Regulations for the purposes of sections 4A and 4B require the approval of the Constitution, Legislation and Juridical Committee of the Knesset.”.
Amendment of the Population Registry Law, 5725-1965 3. In the Population Registry Law, 5725-1965, the following section shall be inserted after section 3:“Power of registration and definition3A. (a) A person shall not be registered as a Jew by ethnic affiliation or religion if a notification under this Law or another entry in the Registry or a public document indicates that he is not a Jew, so long as the said notification, entry or document has not been controverted to the satisfaction of the Chief Registration Officer or so long as declaratory judgment of a competent court or tribunal has not otherwise determined.(b) For the purposes of this Law and of any registration or document thereunder, “Jew” has the same meaning as in section 4B of the Law of Return, 5710-1950.

(c) This section shall not derogate from a registration effected before its coming into force.”

Prime Minister
Acting Minister of the Interior

President of the State