In Israel’s Top Court, a Test Case for the Rights of Patrilineal Jews

In the latest twist in the “Who is a Jew?” debate, Israel’s High Court of Justice was asked on Wednesday to weigh in on a rather fine point: Does the state owe the same rights and benefits to widows and widowers of patrilineal Jews as it does to widows and widowers of matrilineal Jews?

It is more than just an esoteric question, considering that over the past two years, at least four non-Jewish widows and widowers of patrilineal Jews (the offspring of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers) were denied the right to move to Israel and receive all the benefits awarded to immigrants. They were told that they lost that right once their spouses died. By contrast, non-Jewish widows and widowers of matrilineal Jews (the offspring of Jewish mothers and non-Jewish father) enjoy this right whether their spouses are dead or alive, and it has never been called into question.

According to Jewish religious law, or halakha, only the offspring of Jewish mothers are considered Jewish. However, the Law of Return, which determines eligibility for aliyah, applies to a much larger population. According to this law, the wife, children and grandchildren of a halakhic Jew are all eligible for Aliyah, no matter their own halakhic status.

In the case heard in the High Court on Wednesday, a woman from Ukraine, whose husband was a patrilineal Jew and had recently died, was challenging the Interior Ministry's decision to deny her the right to make aliyah. In its response to her application, the Interior Ministry said that only non-Jewish widows of matrilineal Jews enjoy this right, and that it does not apply to non-Jewish widows of patrilineal Jews, like her.

The petitioner and her late husband had four children, three of whom live in Israel where they have completed their military service. The Interior Ministry recommended that she apply either for a work visa or a special visa granted to non-Jewish parents of Israeli soldiers and army veterans, which allows them entry into the country and the right to extended stay. Such visas, however, would not provide her with free healthcare, housing assistance, Hebrew lessons and other benefits that are standard for immigrants.

The patrilineal question carries significance beyond these individual cases because, in the United States and the former Soviet bloc, for example, patrilineal Jews are widely embraced by the Jewish community. The Reform movement, which is the largest Jewish movement in the United States, does not differentiate between patrilineal and matrilineal Jews. And in the former Soviet Union, it was customary for the ethnicity of an individual to be determined by that of the father rather than the mother, making patrilineal Jews more likely to identify as Jewish their matrilineal counterparts.  In recent years, former Soviet bloc countries have been the main source of aliyah to Israel.

The petitioner is being represented in court by the Israel Religious Action Center – the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel.