‘who is a Jew’ Amendment Defeated in the Knesset by 61-47 Vote

The resounding defeat sustained by the “Who Is A Jew” amendment to the Law of Return in the Knesset today — its third defeat in recent years — was a major disappointment to the religious parties which had forced the issue once again to the Knesset floor.

The fiercely controversial measure was over-whelmed by a 61-47 vote, with two abstentions, a far larger margin of defeat than its sponsors had expected. The Orthodox Morasha party was embittered by the failure of many Likud MKs to support the amendment.

The disappointment of Shas, a member of the unity coalition government, was muted. The four MKs of that ultra-Orthodox faction apparently do not consider the defeat a reason to create a crisis with Likud or within the coalition.

The Orthodox parties have been pressing the “Who is a Jew” amendment for years. It would define a Jew as anyone born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism “according to halacha.”

The addition of the last three words is the source of the conflict, for it would in effect invalidate conversions performed outside Israel by other than Orthodox rabbis. The amendment has been forcefully opposed in Israel and by the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism in the U.S.

WARNS OF DIVISIVE EFFECT

Premier Shimon Peres, who spoke for the government in the debate preceding the vote, warned that passage of the amendment would have a divisive effect in Jewish life in Israel and abroad. “Is it in our interest to weaken the bonds which grow steadily stronger between the Conservative and Reform movements and Israel?” Peres asked, addressing himself to “my friends, the Orthodox members of the Knesset.”

The Premier also spoke out against a counter-amendment introduced by the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) which would define a Jew as anyone declaring themselves to be a Jew. That amendment was also defeated.

Yosef Burg, veteran leader of the National Religious Party who is Minister of Religious Affairs, was to have spoken for the amendment. But Burg, who is visiting the U.S., flatly refused pleas from Orthodox colleagues to return home for the debate. He was quoted as saying that he had strongly advised against introducing the amendment at this time since there was no assured majority for its passage. Under the law, the amendment cannot be reintroduced for at least six months.

ORTHODOX PARTIES RANKLED

The Orthodox parties were rankled by the absence of two Likud ministers, Ariel Sharon and Moshe Arens, from the chamber, and abstentions by Rafael Eitan of the rightwing Tehiya Party and Ehud Olmert (Likud-Herut) — especially Olmert, who in the past had supported the amendment.

Olmert told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency today that he has proposed a formula to resolve the conflict to the satisfaction of all three branches of Judaism. He said he would create a Bet Din (religious court) that would consist of three Orthodox rabbis and one each from the Reform and Conservative movements. He noted that the latter would have to be personally observant in their lifestyles and that the Orthodox rabbis would constitute a quorum.

“It is not an ideal solution but there are no ideal solutions,” Olmert said. He claimed he already has support for his proposal among non-Orthodox religious Jews in Israel and the U.S. He named Rabbi Richard Hirsch, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, as the Reform movement is known in Israel, and mentioned leading Conservative rabbis from the U.S. whom he did not name.

Olmert said he would continue to seek the support of rabbis and lay religious figures in the U.S. and observed that his campaign could harm his own political career but would demonstrate his determination and sincerity to resolve a vexing problem.

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