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Orthodox Groups Tell Jewish Agency to Stay out of Law of Return Issue

The heads of five major Orthodox groups in the U.S. have accused the Jewish Agency of applying unwarranted pressure on Premier Yitzhak Shamir to refrain from initiating legislation that would affect the status of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel.

In a letter to Jerold Hoffberger of Baltimore, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, the Orthodox leaders maintained that, “It is improper for the Jewish Agency to have injected itself unnecessarily into the issue.”

They objected to a letter Hoffberger sent to Shamir on May 26 calling his attention to an article of the 1952 covenant between the Jewish Agency and the State of Israel. It requires Israel to “consult with the Jewish Agency in regard to legislation specifically affecting the functions of the Jewish Agency before such legislation is submitted to the Knesset.”

Hoffberger’s letter was prompted by reports that Shamir gave a written promise to the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party last month to achieve within 60 days Knesset passage of legislation which would require overseas conversions to be approved by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Hoffberger maintained that there was “no material difference” between the promised legislation and a proposed amendment to the Law of Return–repeatedly defeated in the Knesset–which would disallow recognition in Israel of conversions to Judaism performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis.

Hoffberger wrote that, “In both cases, the principle responsibility of the Agency (aliya-immigration) would be negatively affected and the unity of the Jewish people fractured.”

CLAIMED MISINTERPRETATION

The Orthodox leaders, in their June 2 letter to Hoffberger, contended that he misinterpreted the Agency’s covenant with the government. “The Jewish Agency’s responsibility in aliya is only with immigration from the oppressed countries. Aliya from Western countries is excluded from the Jewish Agency’s realm. There is therefore, no substantive justification for the Jewish Agency to pressure the Israel government and political leadership,” they wrote.

The letter was signed by Rabbi Milton Polin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America; Rabbi Louis Bernstein, chairman of the Religious Zionists of America; Harold Jacobs, president of the National Council of Young Israel; Sidney Kwestel, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations; and Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld of Poale Agudah Israel.

They asserted that “American Jews who have opinion on Israeli issues have ample means to express their sentiments. Indeed, twenty-six organizations did so on this volatile issue. There is no need for the Jewish Agency to become involved particularly on so unprecedented and flimsy grounds and tortured reasoning.”

Last month the leaders of 21 Jewish secular and religious organizations sent a cable to Israel government leaders and key members of the Knesset warning that the reported agreement between Shamir and the Shas Party “imperils the unity of the Jewish people.” Separate protests were lodged by Hadassah and the Zionist Organization of America.

Shamir was reported to have given his undertaking to Shas in return for the latter’s promise to support Likud in its efforts to block the Labor Party from dissolving the Knesset and calling early elections.

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