Knesset Unit Agrees to New Request by Religious Parties to Hold a Debate on ‘who is a Jew’ Issue

The Knesset Presidium agreed Monday to a new request by the religious parties for another debate on the controversial “Who is a Jew” amendment to the Law of Return.

Under Knesset rules, a proposed measure can be brought up for debate six months after being defeated, as was the case with the Who is a Jew amendment when it last came up for a vote in the Knesset in 1986.

The Labor Party immediately expressed angry opposition to the attempt to revive the measure. It accused Likud of putting it on the agenda without prior consultation with, or agreement by its main coalition partner.

Under the coalition agreement, all of its members must consult with the Premier and Vice Premier on the timing of such an initiative. Laborite Rafael Edri, chairman of the coalition Knesset faction, was furious with the religious parties in the coalition for failure to comply with the agreement.

Likud must vote against the amendment, he said. Labor has made clear that it will vote against it en-bloc, the position taken by the Labor Party caucus and in its election platform. Only Rabbi Menachem HaCohen, the Labor Party’s spiritual mentor, was given dispensation on this issue.

The motion for debate was presented by Avner Shaki of the National Religious Party, Rabbi Avraham Werdiger of the Poale Agudat Israel and Avraham Shapira of the Agudat Israel.

The religious lobby seeks to amend the Law of Return, which confers automatic citizenship on every Jew desiring it, by defining a Jew as a person born of a Jewish mother or converted “according to halacha.” The last phrase would render invalid conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis.

The amendment has been voted down consistently over the years. The religious bloc apparently believes it will have Likud support this time and will try to push the amendment through this week. Likud has indicated support in an effort to persuade Interior Minister Yitzhak Peretz, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, to withdraw his resignation.

ANOTHER CONTROVERSIAL AMENDMENT PENDING

The Shas Party is planning to introduce another controversial amendment in the Knesset this week that would circumvent the high court’s ruling in the Miller case. It would give rabbinical courts in Israel the right of approval of all conversions performed abroad.

Critics charged that this is a back-handed attempt to establish the Who is a Jew amendment as law without voting directly for it. The religious bloc admits it would be a satisfactory alternative. It is assumed that Peretz would return to the Interior Ministry if it is passed.

The chances of both bills are unclear. Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Monday he would support still another proposal by Shas to do away with designations of nationality on identification cards. He said that would solve the issue of endorsing conversions without dividing the Jewish people by amending the Law of Return.

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