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JERUSALEM — Julia Rodbell was teaching at a high school in Dallas when a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Rodbell was shaken by the antisemitic symbols she saw among white nationalists in the crowd, disturbed by the quiet apathy to the event in her city, and, for the first time in her life, felt afraid to be a Jew in the United States.
In the following weeks, she enrolled in a master’s program at Tel Aviv University; when it was over, she made her immigration to Israel official.
“I looked around the world at all the places it was unsafe to be a Jew, and, suddenly, America was one of them,” said Rodbell, 26, a day after receiving her Israeli government-issued immigrant documents. “In Israel, I feel comfortable. I feel at home.”
Rodbell is one of nearly 4,000 Jews who have emigrated from the United States to Israel in the past year. But she has arrived just as the most religiously fundamentalist government in the country’s history comes to power, with plans to ban the immigration of Jews like her. Rodbell’s mother is not Jewish, so she does not fit the strictest Orthodox criteria for being a Jew.
The contentious initiative could strip at least 3 million Jews around the world of their right to Israeli citizenship, according to Israeli media. It is championed by Religious Zionism, a bloc of once-fringe far-right politicians that is slated to be the second largest in the incoming government, after Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.
Bezalel Smotrich, Religious Zionism’s leader, promised earlier this month to change Israel’s immigration policy, which was passed unanimously in 1950 to deliver on the promise of a Jewish homeland in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
“It is a social and Jewish time bomb that must be dealt with,” Smotrich said of the policy in an interview with the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama this month.
Israel’s Law of Return guarantees citizenship to any Jew, from any country in the world, who is able to prove a connection to at least one Jewish grandparent. It enabled the immigration of some 900,000 Jews from other parts of the Arab world, more than 1 million Jews escaping the collapse of the Soviet Union, and tens of thousands fleeing religious persecution in Ethiopia.
But Avi Maoz, head of the ultranationalist Noam party, said in a recent statement that the policy “is absurdly used to bring gentiles into the State of Israel, and to systematically lower the percentage of Jews in the State of Israel. It’s time to fix this thing, and that’s what we’ll do.”
Netanyahu has tapped Maoz to helm a newly established “Jewish identity” government agency, as well as Nativ, an organization that oversees immigration from the former Soviet Union, including refugees from Russia’s war in Ukraine.
According to data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, most of the Jews who have immigrated to Israel from former Soviet countries would not have qualified under Maoz’s proposed criteria, which is based on halacha, or Jewish law, rather than state law.
The proposed immigration restrictions have sent shock waves through the American Jewish community, which is facing an increase in antisemitic attacks and a reemergence of antisemitic rhetoric in the political and cultural mainstream. Some of those looking to Israel for refuge may no longer be welcome if Maoz gets his way.
Last Friday, Israeli President Isaac Herzog granted Netanyahu an extension to conclude coalition negotiations and form a government, though he added the caveat that Netanyahu “must preserve the powerful bond with the Jewish Diaspora.”
The rift between American Jews and Israel has been widening for a long time, according to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents the largest denomination of Judaism in the United States but is considered illegitimate by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel.
“The disconnect is profound,” Jacobs said. “Zionism was never meant to be the project of the ultra-Orthodox, and the redefinition of who is a Jew is not an Israeli prerogative.”
Israel cannot afford to fracture the bond with the largest Jewish diaspora community in the world, he added.
“American Jews are standing up in their social circles, workplaces, social media to lobby for the support of Israel; they meet with their congresspeople, their senators to talk in articulate, clear voices about why Israel’s security matters,” Jacobs said. “Israel is part of who we are as diaspora Jews.”
Netanyahu is promising to rein in the most extreme elements of his government. He said in an interview with NBC that, on the immigration law, he had experience implementing “creative solutions to these kinds of impasses.”
“I doubt we’ll have any changes,” he added.
On Thursday, though, Likud agreed to review the law as part of coalition negotiations, a move that Netanyahu’s party once fiercely opposed.
Many fear the proposed policy shift is an attempt to sabotage the non-Orthodox forms of Judaism that have thrived in the Jewish diaspora and, with the support of American institutions and funding, have started making headway in Israel. Thirteen percent of Israeli Jews belong to the Reform and Conservative movement, according to Israel’s statistics bureau, and their members increasingly bristle at the grip of the Orthodox rabbinate over marriage, divorce, burial and other aspects of personal life.
Progressive Israeli activists are preparing for battle, enlisting money and support from Jewish allies across the world, said Anat Hoffman, co-founder of the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall, which for decades has protested the ultra-Orthodox control of the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites.
Women are forbidden from reading from the Torah, and they are relegated to a separate section. When the Women of the Wall visit, its members have been spat on, cursed and, at times, targeted with dirty diapers. In coalition negotiations, United Torah Judaism, a party in Netanyahu’s government, is demanding the criminalization of all non-Orthodox prayer at the wall, according to a report last week by Army Radio.
“There’s an atmosphere of fear,” Hoffman said.
At last month’s Rosh Hodesh prayer, activists holding umbrellas emblazoned with the slogan “When we pray, it soars” were physically assaulted by unidentified men who wrestled away the umbrellas, breaking some of them.
Women of the Wall will start its first day of self-defense training on the day the new government is sworn in.
“All of us have discovered that our democracies are fragile, that the rights that we thought were etched in stone are not etched in stone,” Hoffman said. “We’re fighting for the soul of Israel here.”