U.S. Religious, Secular Leaders Urge Israeli Political Leaders to Resist Redefining Who is a Jew

Representatives of 21 American Jewish religious and secular organizations today called on political leaders in Israel to resist demands by the Orthodox religious estab lishment for an amendment to the Law of Return to redefine Who is a Jew. (See separate story for Orthodox statement.)

In addition, the 21 Jewish leaders urged that Israel establish an international commission, composed of representatives of the major branches of Jewish religious and communal life, to meet in Israel with Orthodox spokesmen “in the hope of working out an agreement that would prevent the deep divisions in Jewish life we fear if the proposed legislation is passed.”

The American Jewish leaders held a news conference today at the headquarters of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), Reform, where they issued a joint statement in response to Israeli Premier Shimon Peres’ apparent willingness to seek a “compromise” with Israel’s Orthodox religious parties on the volatile issue of Who is a Jew.

‘SECONDARY JEWISH CITIZENSHIP’ REJECTED

Speaking at the news conference, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the UAHC, said, “We categorically reject the notion that there is some sort of qualitative distinction between one kind of Jew and another …. We reject the notion and refuse to be reduced to a kind of secondary Jewish citizenship. We

David Gordis, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, said that while the AJC is “neutral on religious matters … we are not neutral about the right of individuals and groups throughout the world — including Israel — to make their own religious choices; and we are unalterably opposed to religious monopoly and political bigotry.”

Phyllis Kaplan, a national board member of Pioneer Women/Na’amat, said her organization opposed the amendment on the basis that “Judaism is a multifaceted, religious and cultural civilization whose development continues to this date. Therefore, we support the right of all Jews to practice any form of spiritual expression whether religious or secular which transmits Jewish values.”

STATEMENT BY THE ORGANIZATIONS

The statement issued by the 21 organizations said, in part:

“The self-serving demand of a group of Orthodox spokesman in Israel that they be recognized as the sole interpreters of Jewish religion, and specifically that their authority to determine the legitimacy of conversions performed outside Israel be spelled out in the secular law of Israel, is morally and religiously offensive to us.” The statement added:

“The proposed change in the Law of Return would do violence to the principle of Jewish unity and jeopardize the sense of solidarity that binds the Jewish people everywhere to the State of Israel. In deciding whether a conversion performed in the Diaspora is or is not authentic, basing their opinion not on how the conversion was performed but who performed it, the Israeli rabbinate and … the state would arrogate to themselves authority over the religious lives of Jews throughout the world.”

Furthermore, the statement said the amendment could result in Israel becoming a force for “injecting divisiveness” in Jewish life, instead of acting as a force of unity. The Knesset, the statement said, “should not attempt to legislate religious homogeneity. Religious differences are to be resolved neither by majority vote nor by coalition politics. The issue of Who is a Jew must ultimately be resolved among the religious groups involved.”

A FIRST-TIME SUGGESTION

The proposal for an international commission to resolve the continued dispute on the Who is a Jew amendment to the Law of Return is the first time such a suggestion has been offered, according to Schindler, who recalled that American religious and secular organizations have been forced to confront the proposed amendment some 14 times. The most recent was last August.

Besides the UAHC, the AJ Committee, the JTS and Pioneer Women/Na’amat, other signators of the joint statement were: American Jewish Congress; Americans for Progressive Israel; Association of Reform Zionists; B’nai B’rith; Central Conference of American Rabbis; Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs; Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations-Havurot.

Hebrew Union College; Labor Zionist Alliance; Mercaz; National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods; National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods; Rabbinical Assembly; United Synagogue of America; Women’s League for Conservative Judaism; World Union for Progressive Judaism; and the Zionist Organization of America.

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