Knesset Starts Debate on Cabinet Resignations; Hears Religious Minister

The Israel Parliament began today a lengthy and acrimonious debate stemming from the United Religious Party’s quitting the Ben Gurion coalition over the legal definition of a Jew.

The debate began after two last-minute attempts to avert an open break failed this morning. Premier David Ben Gurion had called his Cabinet into a special session hoping to find an acceptable formula, and Joseph Sprinzak, Mapai leader and Speaker of the House, had consulted with Religious bloc leaders trying to postpone the debate. Neither move achieved its purpose.

Moshe Shapira, ranking Religious Minister in the Ben Gurion Government who resigned the Religions portfolio, told the Knesset this afternoon that since the state was proclaimed ten years ago his party had cooperated with every government in an attempt to “serve as a bridge between observant and secular Jews. ” If the Religious Party were now to accede to the new government regulations–which accept for nationality purposes that every person who so declares himself is a Jew–it would help destroy this bridge, he added.

He challenged the sincerity of the leftists in the government, asking: “Why this sudden war on religion?” Mr. Shapira insisted that the answer to the question of “who is a Jew” had been clear for thousands of years and asserted it was most ironic that this question had to be raised in the tenth year of the new State of Israel. He expressed himself as regretful, hurt and ashamed that the government was thus attempting to undermine Judaism.

RELIGIOUS AUTHORITIES MAY INSTITUTE THEIR OWN GENEALOGIC REGISTER

The Religious Party leader asserted that the religious tests of Jewishness had not worked hardships on either non-Jewish mates of Jews or upon their children. Most of these people had recently become Jews through conversion and the isolated few who had not, could, if they wished, attend church and were free and unmolested in their religious freedom and their civic rights, he said.

If the government continued in its present path, he warned, religious authorities would be obliged to institute a genealogic register to protect standards of Judaism. He hit Premier Ben Gurion for having criticized, in his exchange of letters with the venerable Rabbi Judah L. Fishman, the rabbis’ stand in this matter.

It was not the rabbis who had imposed Jewish law, Mr. Shapira pointed out. They merely preserved criteria of Jewishness which were thousands of years old.

He categorically rejected charges of religious coercion on the part of religious interests in Israel. On the contrary, the former Minister for Religions charged, It is the government which has failed to respect the religious rights of its citizens by sending children of observant parents to secular schools and into settlements where religion is not practiced.

The only religious law affecting personal status on Israel’s statute books, he continued, was that on marriages and divorce. This had become the law of the new state by vote of Parliament and in the interests of the unity of the Israeli people, he pointed out.

NEXT STORY