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‘who is a Jew’ Bill Passes Its First Reading in the Knesset

The bitterly controversial “Who is a Jew” bill demanded by Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment, unexpectedly passed its first reading in the Knesset today as a result of parliamentary maneuvering by the religious bloc which caught the opponents off guard. The measure was referred to committee and must pass three other readings in the Knesset before it becomes law. It is expected, ultimately, to be defeated. The bill is an amendment to Israel’s Law of Return. It defines as a Jew anyone born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism according to halacha, religious law.

In practice, this means that only conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis would be recognized in Israel, a restriction regarded as an affront to Reform and Conservative Judaism abroad and one that would strengthen the Orthodox grip on personal matters in Israel to the exclusion of the other branches of Judaism.

The “Who is a Jew” bill has been a source of deep conflict between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox in Israel for years. It lay in abeyance until the Likud government headed by Premier Menachem Begin came to power in the May, 1977 elections. Article 8 of Begin’s coalition agreement with the National Religious Party and the ultra-Orthodox Aguda bloc promised that the Law of Return would be amended according to halacha and that a bill to that effect would be submitted by a coalition member and supported by the government.

It authorizes the Rabbinical Court, meaning the Orthodox rabbinate, to “be the authorized body to determine the validity of a conversion certificate” and pledged that “the Premier shall make every effort to gain a parliamentary majority for this bill.”

CAUGHT BY SURPRISE

The Aguda has complained recently that Begin has been lagging in the implementation of this promise. Flushed with their recent Knesset victory over the exemption of Orthodox women from military service, Poalei Aguda MK Kalman Kahana introduced his measure today, to the apparent surprise of everyone, including the government.

He and his supporters chose a time when most MKs had left the house after an exhausting foreign policy debate. To make sure that the secular opposition was completely tricked, some 15 of the bill’s supporters hid in the wash room until it was time to vote. When the bell rang for voting they rushed to their seats in the nearly empty chamber and pushed the measure through.

Activists of the Habad Hasidic group who were present in the visitors gallery immediately telephoned the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, to advise him of the “victory.” But that is far from assured. Most observers predict a fierce storm of opposition and possibly a government crisis before the matter is ended.

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