Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Jewish at the time of his birth, according to a widely disputed article published in Britain's Telegraph on Saturday. A photograph of Ahmadinejad's identification document shows that his family changed its name from Sabourjian during his childhood, a name the Telegraph interpreted to indicate Jewish ancestry. In the unlikely event that Ahmadinejad's parents were Jewish, would he have a right to Israeli citizenship under the country's Law of Return?
No. The Law of Return permits the Israeli Ministry of the Interior to deny citizenship to otherwise qualified applicants who are "engaged in an activity directed against the Jewish people" or are "likely to endanger public health or the security of the state." Ahmadinejad, who famously referred to Israel as a "stinking corpse" and has repeatedly called for its destruction, would be declared ineligible.
Even if Ahmadinejad weren't opposed to the Jewish state, his application for aliyah, the Hebrew term for Jewish immigration to Israel, might run into some problems. While a simple reading of the law—which extends eligibility to persons who have a Jewish spouse, parent, or grandparent—suggests he might qualify, applicants who openly practice another faith are usually rejected. Atheists and agnostics are totally kosher.
The original 1950 Law of Return, passed only two years after the establishment of Israel, offered aliyah to "every Jew who has expressed his desire to settle in Israel." The law did not specify whether an applicant had to be a practicing Jew or whether it was enough to have a Jewish mother—the Orthodox requirement to be considered Jewish under traditional doctrine. In 1962, a Catholic monk who converted from Judaism during WWII attempted to take advantage of the relatively vague requirements. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled against Brother Daniel, even though he had rescued many Jews from the Holocaust. The Knesset incorporated the decision into the law in 1970, barring applicants who had "voluntarily changed" religions. (Under this provision, Jews for Jesus—ethnic Jews who believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ—have been denied the right of return.)
The Ministry of the Interior has largely ignored the law's use of the word voluntarily. Earlier this year, Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, whose Polish-Jewish mother placed him in the care of a Catholic family before perishing in the Holocaust, made headlines in Israel. Unaware of his Jewish roots—and therefore never effecting a voluntary conversion—Weksler-Waszkinel became a Catholic priest during his youth but sought Israeli citizenship when he learned about his mother. The Interior Ministry—which has a standing committee to decide difficult cases—offered him a two-year visa rather than citizenship. Father Romuald has decided to accept the temporary status rather than argue through the courts that his conversion was involuntary.
If Ahmadinejad wanted to take his long shot at Israeli citizenship, he would need to produce documentation of his Jewish ancestry. Any original document is acceptable, including a letter from a rabbi or proof of his ancestors' burial in a Jewish cemetery. If he can't come up with the proof, the Jewish Agency for Israel can consult its genealogy database for information linking him to known Jews in the diaspora.
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Explainer thanks Shahar Azani of the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, John Levy of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Ilan Peleg of Lafayette College, and Mark Stern of the American Jewish Congress. Thanks also to reader Tony Kondaks for asking the question.