JERUSALEM (Jan. 14)
The controversial Who is a Jew amendment to the Law of Return will have its preliminary reading in the Knesset this Wednesday.
The issue was forced by nine MKs of the religious bloc in parliament who requested today that the motion be placed on the agenda. Premier Shimon Peres has been seeking a postponement or a compromise of some sort but the Orthodox camp is adamant.
This apparently is because they smell victory. Political observers said today that the amendment which would invest the Orthodox rabbinate with the exclusive right, by law, to determine who is a Jew, could get through the Knesset this time, at least on its first reading.
THE FATE OF THE MEASURE
According to the observers the fate of the measure will depend on just how many and which MKs are in the chamber at the time of the vote. The Who is a Jew amendment was decisively defeated the last time it came before the Knesset, sponsored by the Agudat Israel party.
This time it is in the form of a private member’s bill. Its most vigorous proponents are not the religious parties themselves but the Habad Hasidic movement in Israel, acting on orders from the movement’s headquarters in New York.
The Orthodox politicians are well aware that the Labor-Likud unity coalition is anxious to avoid a showdown over the measure. The religious parties in the coalition have served unofficial notice that they will leave it if the amendment is defeated.
Its passage, however, could cause a serious rift with the Reform and Conservative movements which represent a majority of affiliated Jews the world over, particularly in the United States.
PERES CITES WORRISOME PROBLEM
Peres, addressing a luncheon of the Foreign Press Association in Tel Aviv, said the outcome would not affect his coalition Cabinet because the issue has been raised in a private member’s bill and the Cabinet therefore does not face the consequences of the vote.
“The problem which really worries me is the division in Jewish life, between the diaspora and Israel, and my efforts are aimed at keeping our people together and united. Judaism was always a pluralistic concept — a nation which was do le to keep together despite its different streams,” Peres said.
URGENT WARNINGS FROM U.S. JEWS
The Law of Return defines a Jew as a person born of a Jewish mother or converted. The amendment would add the words “according to halacha.” In practice this would mean that conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel or abroad would be invalid and neither the converts nor their offspring would be recognized as Jews in Israel. Peres has already received urgent warnings from Conservative and Reform leaders in the U.S. that adoption of the amendment would create a deep division among Jews and a rift between the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism and the Jewish State. (See separate story.)
PRECARIOUS POLITICAL SITUATION
Nevertheless, the political situation in Israel is precarious. Although the religious parties in the government represent only a small minority, their defection could bring down the shaky unity coalition. Labor and Likud are very much aware of this and would prefer not to alienate the Orthodox factions.
According to political observers, most Labor MKs and some Likud Liberals will vote against the amendment. But a majority of Likud especially its Herut bloc, joined by the smaller rightwing parties, are expected to support it. That could give the amendment a narrow edge.
Peres met with Orthodox MKs last night to try to postpone the vote. Rafi Edri, chairman of the Labor Party’s Knesset faction proposed that a debate be held Wednesday but the actual vote be postponed for a month. Another possibility is for the Premier to ask for the right to reply to the bill and then take several weeks to prepare his reply.
But the Orthodox, led by the Hobad rabbis, are already lobbying vigorously to corral doubtful votes to their side.