Reform, Conservative Leaders Irked over Shamir’s Apparent Commitment to Amend Law on Conversions

Leaders of the American and Israeli Reform and Conservative movements in Judaism expressed disappointment and anger Tuesday over Premier Yitzhak Shamir’s apparent determination to push a measure through the Knesset that would give the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel sole authority to determine Jewish identity.

“The Premier did not have a sympathetic car,” Frank Kreutzner, president of the United Synagogue of America, the congregational branch of the 1.5-million member Conservative movement in the U.S., told a press conference here after he and five other leaders met with Shamir.

He said Shamir appeared to be siding with the Orthodox view and had implied it was the non-Orthodox who were expressing extremist views.

Openly courting the religious parties to support Likud efforts to block the Labor Party from calling early Knesset elections on the issue of an international conference for Middle East peace, Shamir pledged last month to achieve passage by the Knesset of an amendment to the Religious Conversion Law of 1927. He set a 60 day deadline.

The change would give the Chief Rabbinical Council final authority to approve conversions.

Its effects would be identical with the controversial oft-proposed amendment to the Law of Return that would invalidate conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis abroad.

That amendment has been defeated by every Knesset to date.

WARN OF JEWISH BREACH

The Reform and Conservative leaders said they warned Shamir that if his measure is passed it would cause a “damaging breach in the relations with Diaspora Jewry” and have adverse effects on political support and fund-raising efforts for Israel among Diaspora Jews.

They added that the measure posed the danger of “Vaticanization” of the Jewish religion. Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the Reform congregational movement in the U.S., told the press conference: “I believe the Premier understands the consequences if the bill is passed. He would rather that the problem go away, and that the three trends in Judaism would get together and clear away their differences.”

A spokesman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Shamir distinguished between the immediate question of the Conversion Law and the controversy over the “Who is a Jew” amendment. Although Shamir is known to personally support the Orthodox view, he told his visitors that a special ministerial committee is studying the issue and that he wants a solution acceptable to all three trends in Judaism.

In addition to Kreutzner and Schindler, the delegation consisted of Rabbi Richard Hirsch, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism; Rabbi Pinhas Spector, executive director of Masorti, the Conservative movement in Israel; Meir Azari, executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism; and Prof. Hillel Shoval, chairman of Hemdat, the Public Council for Freedom of Science, Religion and Culture in Israel.

POLITICAL MANEUVERS SEEN

Meanwhile, the religious parties and Likud are reportedly trying to exploit the absence abroad of several Labor members of the Knesset to push the amendment through parliament as soon as possible.

In New York last week, Uzi Bar-am, Secretary General of the Labor Party, warned American Jewish leaders that Likud may well succeed. Speaking at a meeting of the conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Bar-am said Likud is actively pursuing the support of two Knesset members, Yigael Hurwitz of the Ometz Party and Zaidan Atashi of Shinui, offering them safe seats on the Likud list in the next elections.

With their backing, there may be sufficient votes to pass the amendment, he said. He called the Likud maneuvers an unprecedented threat and promised that the Labor Party would continue to fight back. But it urgently needs the support of American Jews. Unless they act aggressively and vocally, the change in the law will become a fact, dividing Jews all over the world, Bar-am said.

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