Clash over ‘who is a Jew’ Issue Has Revived Political Tensions

The sharp differences over the “Who is a Jew” issue that erupted among American Jewish leaders attending the meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations here this week has revived political tensions within and outside the Israel government.

“Who is a Jew” is the generic term for the provision in the Law of Return that defines as a Jew for purposes of automatic Israeli citizenship anyone born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism.

The Orthodox parties have been for years pushing an amendment that would add the words “according to halacha” with respect to converts. It would implicitly rule out conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis which are not recognized by the Orthodox establishment that controls religious life in Israel.

Conservative and Reform leaders from the U.S. who forcefully oppose the amendment, urged Israel’s leaders yesterday to reject the Orthodox demands. The leaders of six American Orthodox groups vehemently denounced Premier Shimon Peres’ recent proposal to freeze the issue for 10 years. Both groups took time out from the Presidents Conference deliberations yesterday to hold separate press conferences on the issue.

The “Who is a Jew” amendment has come before the Knesset twice in recent years and was twice defeated. Peres declared in Tel Aviv yesterday that there would be “no compromise” with the religious parties on the amendment.

The latter indicated they would not bring it before the Knesset at this time. Political observers said they are aware it would probably fail again. But they are embittered toward Peres and the Labor Party. Menachem Porush, an Aguda Israel Party MK, charged that Labor “is apparently interested in being in power in the United States, not in Israel.” A spokesman for Shas, another religious faction, said Peres’ statement was “very serious and would have severe long term effects.”

Labor Party Secretary General Uzi Baram said the party was keenly interested in reviving its political alliance with the religious parties, but not at the expense of a measure which would divide the Jewish people.

Sources close to Peres pointed out that he is prepared to accept religious positions on many other issues — for example, the measure just passed by the Knesset banning the sale of pork and the Sabbath ban on Haifa’s funicular railroad. But he will not bend the “Who is a Jew” amendment because it is an issue that effects not just Israel but Jewish unity all over the world, the sources said.

NEXT STORY