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Amichai Chikli on amending the Law of Return: ‘We’ve got to do it slow’

Calling the Law of Return 'fundamental to the State of Israel,' Israel's new Diaspora affairs minister said that 'Israel will always remain [a] safe haven for every Jew, everywhere on earth'

Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli, appearing at the opening night of the Israeli-American Council’s National Summit, said that any change to Israel’s Law of Return would happen after a slow process that would include consultations with a range of people. 

Chikli, the highest-ranking Israeli government official to appear at the conference, which began on Thursday in Austin, made the comments in an interview with Israeli journalist Miri Michaeli. Michaeli asked Chikli about proposals from members of the newly elected governing coalition to abolish the law’s “grandchild clause,” which allows individuals with one Jewish grandparent to obtain citizenship in Israel. 

Diaspora Jewish leaders have come out in opposition to changing the Law of Return, arguing that an effort by Israel to alter its definition of Jewishness will harm ties with Diaspora communities. But religious parties in the coalition say that granting citizenship to people who are not traditionally considered Jewish dilutes Israel’s Jewish character. Chikli, a member of the Likud party, quoted statistics on Thursday night indicating a decline in the percentage of immigrants to Israel who are Jewish. He added that the law itself would not be repealed. 

“No one, no one is going to cancel the Law of Return, which is fundamental for the state of Israel,” Chikli said. “Israel will always remain [a] safe haven for every Jew, everywhere on earth.” 

He said, referring to the section of the law containing the grandchild clause, “We’re not saying [we’re] about to cancel chapter four tomorrow morning… There’s going to be a committee to determine how can we deal with this serious challenge…  We need to tackle this challenge. We’ve got to do it slow. We’ve got to do it by listening to every aspect.” 

Chikli added that he spoke with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before coming to the conference, and said regarding reforming the law, “We’re going to do it very, very responsibly. And I think we can relax and we can rely on this government to do the best for the Jewish people.”

Regarding other government policies that have caused concern — including a proposal to significantly limit the power of Israel’s Supreme Court — Chikli said that he had spent hours meeting with American Jewish leaders about topics including the judicial reform, but that the government is committed to carrying out its agenda. Tens of thousands of people have protested the judicial reform, and U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan raised the issue in a meeting on Thursday with Netanyahu. 

“There is a lot alarming the left, it’s obvious, and it affects, dramatically, also the Jews who live here in America,” Chikli said. “We were very honest with our agenda and it is our responsibility to follow this agenda. And it does not mean that we are not listening.”

He also took a jab at the press that drew applause, recommending that people consume “less Haaretz and New York Times, and more common sense and tachlis [about] what the government actually is doing. That’s it. We are proud to be Zionist. I am proud to represent this government.”

Chikli took a more conciliatory tone at a smaller gathering of Jewish leaders earlier on Thursday, where he named antisemitism as a challenge facing Diaspora Jewry and suggested that Israel wants to help Jewish day schools to be more affordable. But he said that he would rely on American Jewish leaders to help him understand the state of their Jewish communities. He said that he sees other Jewish leaders as partners, and named two who have criticized the government’s policies publicly: Jewish Federations of North America CEO Eric Fingerhut, and Doron Almog, chair of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. 

“I am not an expert in what’s going on in the Jewish communities in America — far away from it,” he said at the gathering. “I am here first of all, to learn and to listen to you… The Ministry of Diaspora [Affairs] can succeed only if we will unite forces, first and foremost, with the Zionist organizations sitting here in the audience.” 

He added during that session that he sees himself as a liaison of sorts between the Israeli government and Diaspora communities. “I don’t see my role as a political role,” he said. “I am not here to convince the audience [of] the values or the agenda of the Likud [Party] although I’m from the Likud and I’m proud of it, and I’m not here to bring you the conflicts that we have in politics in Israel.” 

He said his job is “to listen and to bring the things that I hear and the voices of the Jewish communities back to the government and also to try and explain the best I can the policy of the government, and to maybe keep things a bit more calm, a bit more relaxed about what’s going on in Israel.”

Full disclosure: IAC provided eJewishPhilanthropy with transportation and accommodation for its national summit.