Serious Rift in Aguda over Issue of ‘who is a Jew’

A mass rally here last night in support of the “Who is a Jew” amendment to the Law of Return opened a serious rift within the ultra-Orthodox Aguda Israel party over whether the measure should be pressed in the Knesset at this time or be held in abeyance until circumstances improve its chances for passage. Defeat, a virtual certainty at present, would lead to a coalition crisis.

The 4,000 who gathered at the Binyanei Ha’ooma convention hall clearly wanted action now. The rally was organized by the Chabad (Lubavitch) Hasidic movement which itself is not part of the Aguda. But all of the Hasidic elements within the party were represented, led by Rabbi Simcha Bunan Alter, the “Gerrer Rebbe” who is co-chairman of the “Council of Sages, ” the governing body of the party.

On the other hand, the “Mittnagged” wing of Aguda, (opponents of Hasidism) headed by the other co-chairman, Rabbi Eliezer Sach, opposed the rally and demonstratively boycotted it. So did most of the religious court judges. The party’s four-man Knesset faction was also split. The two Hasidic members, Avraham Shapiro and Shmuel Halpert attended the rally. Shlomo Lorincz and Menachem Porush stayed away. The split was accompanied by mud-slinging between the party factions, before and after the rally.

The “Who is a Jew” amendment would define a Jew as a person born of a Jewish mother or converted “according to halacha”(religious law). The inclusion of those three words, which are omitted from the present law, is the cause of the controversy that has bedeviled the issue since the inception of the State. They would, in effect, recognize as valid only conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis.

Premier Menachem Begin promised the Aguda that he would do his utmost to get the amendment through the Knesset during his term in office. This was one of the many concessions he made in order to persuade the Aguda to join his narrowly-based coalition government. But it is one of the few on which he has been unable to deliver, mainly because of strong opposition within the Liberal Party wing of Likud.

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