‘who is a Jew’ Issue Raises Storm of Protest in Israel and Among American Jews

Premier Shimon Peres’ apparent willingness to seek a “compromise” with Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment on the volatile issue of “Who is a Jew” has aroused storms of angry protest from many quarters in Israel and among American Jews.

Peres is scheduled to meet tonight with Orthodox Knesset members, a small but pivotal minority in parliament, who have revived pressure for an amendment to the Law of Return which would give the Orthodox rabbinate the exclusive right to determine Who is a Jew.

Both Labor and Likud have made no secret of their preference not to bring this perennial issue to a head at this time. Most Labor MKs would certainly oppose it and Peres has no desire to alienate the religious factions who would hold the balance of power should the Labor-Likud unity coalition fall apart and new elections be required.

ADDITION SOUGHT TO LAW OF RETURN

The amendment, in the form of a private member’s bill presented by MK Avner Shaki of the National Religious Party, a partner in the unity coalition, would add the wards “according to halacha” to the definition of a Jew in Israel’s Law of Return. Without the addition, a Jew is a person born of a Jewish mother or converted.

The words “according to halacha” added to the law would mean that persons converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis at home or abroad would not be recognized as Jews in Israel, nor would their off-spring.

Peres and Labor Party whip Moshe Shahal, the Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, are reportedly studying compromise proposals that would ward off a showdown. One is an amendment specifying that overseas conversions would be subject to endorsement by Israel’s rabbinical courts if a convert needed recourse to those courts for the purpose of marriage, divorce or other matters within the religious ambit. Israel has no civil marriage or divorce.

Political commentators said today that if such an amendment were adopted it would give legal sanction to what is already a de-facto situation. The religious courts — Batei Din — do in fact examine and review foreign conversions on a case-by-case basis.

THE OPPOSITION WITHIN ISRAEL

But the proposed compromise has raised powerful opposition from liberal and feminist groups who feel it would prejudice the legal standing of women in Israel. The leadership of WIZO, the Womens International Zionist Organization, sent a strong protest today to Peres and Deputy Premier Yitzhak Shamir, leader of Likud.

Shinui, a leftist political faction within the unity coalition, and the opposition Citizen Rights Movement (CRM) are also vociferously opposed to the idea, as are the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel which are battling Shaki’s amendment. Leon Dulzin, chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization Executives, joined the fray over the weekend. He wrote to Peres demanding that the Jewish Agency be consulted before any decision is taken by the government on the amendment, in conformity with the covenant governing the government’s relations with the Jewish Agency. This requires the government to consult with the Agency before taking any position on issues crucially affecting world Jewry.

THE OPPOSITION IN THE U.S.

Gershon Cohen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in New York, which trains and ordains Conservative rabbis, is understood to have sent an urgent letter to Peres warning him that passage of the Orthodox-inspired amendment could cause a grave breach between the Conservative movement and the State of Israel.

(It was announced in New York over the weekend that leaders of 20 national Jewish religious and secular organizations will hold a news conference tomorrow morning to express their protest against the latest effort by the Orthodox to amend the Law of Return.

(They will publicly urge the Knesset to postpone any vote on the issue and will propose instead creation of an international commission of representatives of the major streams of Jewish religious and communal life all over the world to meet in Israel with Orthodox spokesmen to seek an agreement that would prevent deep division among Jews.

(The press conference will be held at the New York headquarters of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the congregational body of Reform Judaism in America.)

FURTHER EMBARRASSMENT FOR PERES

Peres, meanwhile, was further embarrassed when the religious factions in the Knesset threatened a nonconfidence motion if it was established that Energy Minister Shahal, whom Peres hastily summoned home from an oil-purchasing mission to Mexico, had travelled on the Sabbath.

Apparently the price for withdrawing the motion is a vote to bring the Who is a Jew amendment to the Knesset floor. The amendment has been before the Knesset several times in recent years and was decisively defeated, despite former Premier Menachem Begin’s pledge to the religious parties that it would be passed during his Likud government’s term in office.

NEXT STORY