Law of Return Amendment Defeated by 62-51 Vote in First Knesset Reading

The controversial amendment to the Law of Return demanded by Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment, was defeated by a vote of 62-51 on its first reading in the Knesset today.

The voting was largely along party lines. Labor MKs opposed it, following the lead of Premier Shimon Peres who called the measure devisive. Likud joined the religious bloc in support of the amendment. But three Likud Liberals broke ranks to vote against it. Another Likud MK abstained and five were absent from the chamber.

The voting was preceded and followed by acrimonious debate that spilled into the Knesset corridors after the balloting. Members of the different Orthodox factions not only denounced the nonreligious MKs but traded insults with each other over the defeat.

The amendment drew a powerful response from non-Orthodox religious and secular Jews abroad, particularly in the United States, when it was placed on the Knesset agenda last week. They warned in messages to Peres and other Israeli leaders that its adoption would create a serious rift between diaspora Jewry and the Jewish State.

The Law of return defines a Jew as a person born of a Jewish mother or converted. The proposed amendment would have added the words “according to halacha” which would invalidate conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel and abroad. The converts and their offspring would not be recognized as Jews in Israel.

PERES, SUMS UP OPPONENTS’ CASE

Peres, summing up the case against the amendment, called for national unity. “Our generation was called upon to find a way of ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people in times of change and great dangers,” he told the Knesset. “A way must be found to unify the people, not to cause rifts.” During the week’s discussion on the amendment, Peres reminded the proponents of the measure that “the gates of Auschwitz were open to all Jews, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, so surely the gates of Jerusalem must be open to all Jews.”

Peres explained that the Law of Return, asoriginally formulated by the Knesset years ago, was a Zionist law rather than a religious measure and was not concemed with matters of religion or personal status.

The amendment went down to defeat when it was brought before the Knesset last year, under the sponsorship of the Agudat Israel party. This time it was introduced as a private member’s bill by MK Avner Sciaky of the National Religious Party. Its most vigorous proponents were members of the Habad Hasidic movement, acting on orders from Habad headquarters in New York.

Although all of the religious parties backed it, those within the unity coalition were technically not bound to take retaliatory measures against the government. The Orthodox Shas faction, which holds the Ministry of Interior, had threatened to leave. In the event, only one of the four Shas MKs announced he would resign, Yaacov Yosef.

One Labor MK, Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, supported the amendment. He had been released from party discipline out of respect for his rabbinical status. The three Likud Liberals who voted against it were Sarah Doron, Ariel Weinstein and Dan Tichon.

Two Likud ministers were absent-Minister of Commerce and Industry Ariel Sharon, who is in New York, and Minister of Tourism Avraham Sharir; three Likud MKs, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, Pessah Gruper and Uriel Linn were also absent, as was Rabbi Meir Kahane of the Kach faction. Bennie Shalita of Likud abstained.

NEXT STORY