Dateline: Kaunas, Lithuania
Last week, I shared how ethnic Lithuanians can claim Lithuanian citizenship through ancestry.
The process is a lot easier for those whose Lithuanian ancestors left the country during Soviet or German occupation. Of course, Jews were a chief target in Lithuania and elsewhere during Nazi occupation.
In addition to many ancestral home countries that now offer citizenship to the ancestors of those oppressed, people of Jewish heritage seeking a second citizenship may also be able to claim an Israeli passport under Israel’s Law of Return.
The Law of Return has been discussed as a second passport strategy before, but the exact details have often been somewhat unclear.
While the Law of Return was designed to offer Israeli citizenship and an Israeli passport to ethnic Jews and those of Jewish faith, there are ways that non-Jews can qualify for a second passport as well.
The Law of Return was designed to further the creation of a Jewish state and was enacted by Israel’s unicameral parliament — the Knesset — in 1950, allowing for anyone of Jewish heritage to return to Israel as an “oleh” (immigrant).
Twenty years later, the Israeli government modified the rules to allow for a greater number of people to benefit from the Law of Return, including spouses and grandchildren of Jews.
Obtaining Israeli citizenship under the law is straightforward, but while citizenship can be conferred within a few months, you will not receive a full passport until the first anniversary of your Israeli citizenship.
The goal of the Law of Return is for Jews who wish to establish “the center of their life” in Israel to have the opportunity to do so. If you choose to do so, you will be required to show that you have established some ties to Israel in order to obtain a full travel document after your first year of citizenship.
Who qualifies for Israel’s Law of Return?
Any Jew is entitled to take advantage of the Law of Return if he or she intends to settle in Israel. “Jew” is defined as anyone whose mother or grandmother is a Jew, or has converted to Judaism.
Willing to convert to Judaism for a second citizenship? It is possible; although your local rabbi will have to assert that your reasons for converting are true, and not just for wanting a passport.
Anyone who converts to Judaism under the Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform denominations is eligible, although Conservative and Reform conversions must take place outside of Israel to qualify.
Some Orthodox Jews in Israel have complained that the Law of Return is a tool used by secular politicians to deemphasize the religious elements of the Israeli government.
Others have even suggested that more liberal denominations should be held to higher standards for immigration; however, all denominations of Jews are welcome under the Law of Return.
When the law was modified, it also allowed for the spouse, children, and grandchildren of a Jew to also qualify. It is possible to use the Law of Return, even if you are not Jewish, by falling into one of these categories.
You can claim “oleh” status and return to Israel even if your Jewish ancestor is no longer alive, or if he or she chooses not to go with you.
That is why claiming permanent resident status and near-instantaneous citizenship is relatively straightforward. I have to wonder how many non-Jews sought out a Jewish spouse to get an Israeli passport.
There are a few exceptions in which the Israeli government can deny your request under the Law of Return. The most notable is that those deemed a threat to Israel can be turned away. This includes those with felony histories in other countries or those who are wanted for extradition.
There have also been numerous court cases debating whether Messianic Jews qualify for citizenship. Originally, the Messianic denomination was deemed to be an entirely different religion from Judaism, but that view has been successfully challenged in some cases.
Lastly, it is possible to have your Israeli citizenship and passport revoked if you commit acts against the security of the country, or if you committed fraud to obtain the citizenship in the first place. It is considered traitorous to enter any of the so-called “enemy states”, which include Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
Since its introduction, hundreds of thousands of non-Jews have claimed Israeli citizenship under the law, in addition to several million Jews. That is, of course, a significant number considering Israel’s population of eight million.
How to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return
If you qualify for “oleh” status under the law, you must obtain an appropriate visa at your local consulate, or obtain said visa in Israel after arriving on a tourist visa. However, if you are a citizen of an Eastern European or former Soviet state, you must apply at your local consulate or Jewish agency.
Upon your arrival in Israel, there is a ninety-day waiting period before you can be awarded citizenship. However, citizenship is automatically granted unless you specifically ask the government not to grant you Israeli citizenship.
You are not required to remain in Israel during the ninety-day period and are free to travel on your current passport so long as you obtain an exit permit, which is typically a formality.
Even if you choose not to claim your Israeli citizenship, you will retain the “oleh” status with which you arrived, and which confers permanent resident status.
Other ways to get Israeli citizenship
There has been some debate in Israel about the need to continue the Law of Return. Some Israelis prefer that the law be eliminated entirely, arguing that too many non-Jews have taken advantage of their easy ability to get a passport merely by being married to a Jew or having some ancestry.
This only goes to show that when you have the opportunity to claim a second residency or second passport, you should take it — all things considered, of course. You never know when a certain program will be discontinued or modified to exclude you.
There are, however, other ways for a non-Jew to obtain a second citizenship in Israel.
If you are looking for an alternate citizenship to confer to your future children, citizenship by descent is possible for children born either in or outside of Israel. Any child who has an Israeli mother or father is eligible for Israeli citizenship, even if they are born out of the country.
That said, it is possible for a non-Jewish parent to pass Israeli citizenship to their child. However, citizenship by descent only applies to the first generation removed from the country.
Citizenship is also possible by naturalization, provided you have legal permanent resident status in Israel and have lived there for three of the previous five years. Obtaining permanent resident status, however, is rather rare and requires you to apply directly to the Minister of the Interior. Unless you’re a member of the Christian clergy, don’t hold your breath.
Naturalization in Israel also requires some knowledge of the Hebrew language and renouncing your current citizenship. In this way, the naturalization procedure is more strict in that citizenship issued under the Law of Return does not require you to renounce other citizenships.
The downsides of getting Israeli citizenship
No place is perfect, and while claiming an Israeli passport can be a good second citizenship strategy in some cases, you should be aware of the negatives.
Not only are Israelis forbidden to visit or marry someone from any of the “enemy states”, but many countries deny entry to Israeli passport holders. Heck, some countries deny entry to ANYONE with an Israeli passport stamp, or even proof of a land border crossing, from entering.
While most of the countries that don’t recognize Israeli passports aren’t exactly romantic tourist destinations, you must obtain permission from the government to enter Malaysia on an Israeli passport. Additionally, you are allowed to transit through the United Arab Emirates (Dubai and Abu Dhabi are high-traffic airline hubs in the region), but are not allowed admission into the country.
Military service is a requirement of every Israeli over 18, and that military service requirement will also pass on to your Israeli citizen children. Very few non-Arabs who request to be excused from national service have their requests approved, so take this into serious consideration.
Israel isn’t exactly a tax haven, either. Personal income tax rates go as high as 48% on incomes in the low six figures. Israel taxes residents on their worldwide income, using the same “center of life” standard to determine tax status as is used to determine eligibility for a full-fledged passport.
So don’t plan on using an Israeli passport to escape high taxes, although it’s possible you could always leave Israel after living there for several years.
Speaking of leaving, it can be very hard to give up your Israeli citizenship if you so choose in the future. You can apply to cancel your citizenship, but your desire to do so is not enough; your application must be approved by the government, which usually only approves applications for Israelis who have been long absent from the country.
How this applies to those who go on to acquire citizenship in countries that forbid dual nationality — such as Singapore — is unknown.
As I said, many in Israel are protesting the liberal immigration rules under the Law of Return. There are definitely downsides to holding an Israeli passport, not least of which include an even greater lack of security than holding an American passport.
However, considering that Israel does allow dual citizenship for those applying under the Law of Return, it is a reasonable second citizenship to consider if you are willing to live by the rules.
That makes the Law of Return worth considering as part of your personal second passport strategy.