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J.s. Jewish Leaders Mount Intensive Effort to Try to Stem Changes in the Law of Return

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American Jewish leaders becoming increasingly alarmed at the prospect of the Israeli government passing legislation which would alter the definition of a Jew under the Law of Return have mounted an intensive effort to stem such changes.

A delegation of American and Canadian leaders from the top fund-raising organizations for Israel, the United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal, led by Shoshana Cardin, president of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), will leave for Israel Sunday, three days in advance of a scheduled vote in the Knesset on the issue.

Cardin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Wednesday that should the measure pass, Reform and Conservative Jews would very likely reevaluate their political, financial and psychological support for Israel. In practice, she said, this could mean less travel to Israel and less encouragement for their youth to go on programs in Israel. But Cardin stressed that “we don’t want to talk about the what if, we want to avoid that.” She added, “No one voice speaks for the totality.”

The decision to send a delegation immediately was taken Wednesday afternoon in a closed-door session at CJF headquarters here by representatives of UJA, UIA, CJF, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the Jewish Agency and four of the largest local Jewish Federations. The move reflects the profound concern in the North American Jewish community over the “Who is a Jew?” debate within Israel.

A POLITICAL, NOT A RELIGIOUS ISSUE

Small, ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset have attempted for years to push through amendments to the Law of Return which grants automatic Israeli citizenship to all Jews. The small parties want the law to stipulate that a convert must go through a halachic conversion to qualify for the automatic citizenship.

Following the numerous defeats, the latest of which came when two bills failed to gain a majority vote in the Knesset on July 8, the small parties have introduced a “back door” amendment which would give the rabbinic courts the authority to determine validity of conversions. This amendment is scheduled for a vote Wednesday.

The issue has become political rather than religious, said Cardin. The smaller religious parties, threatening to pull out of their traditional alliance with the Likud and vote with Labor to dissolve the unity government, have effectively pressured Likud into supporting the proposed changes. This was reflected in the July 8th votes when Likud almost unanimously voted for the two amendments. The amendments were narrowly defeated.

Shamir had pledged to the ultra-Orthodox Shas party several months ago that Likud would “do all in its power” to pass a bill introduced by Shas to empower the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate to approve conversions.

“The number of votes for the amendment has increased over the years,” Cardin told the JTA following the closed meeting. “It is possible that special pressure now is being brought to bear.”

The delegation’s goal, according to Cardin, is to convince both major parties to remove the “Who is a Jew?” issue from their political agendas permanently.

Passing the amendments “would delegitimize and disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Jews,” Cardin said. She referred to the numbers of North American Jews affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements who have the perception that they “do not fit in” in the Jewish state. “This could well erode support for the State of Israel–something we cannot tolerate,” she said.

The delegation leaving Sunday plans to meet with Shamir and other government figures, Cardin said. But they also want to reach the Israeli people through press conferences and meetings.

“We want to help Israelis to understand the issue. We are hoping that there is an understanding of the numbers of people involved and the potential rift,” Cardin said.

TELEGRAMS SENT TO EVERY MK

The leaders who met Wednesday also decided to send telegrams to every member of Knesset urging them not to support the proposed changes and explaining their position. The text of the telegrams was similar to one sent earlier in the week to Shamir which warned that the changes would “irreparably damage the support of Israel and its institutions by diaspora Jews” and cause a “terrible rift” among the Jewish people. (See July 22 Bulletin.)

Representatives of the organizations supported a similar resolution at the Jewish Agency Assembly last month in Jerusalem and have communicated their displeasure with the trend on a number of other occasions.

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