Jewish Identity Issues Can Be Removed from Israel’s Political Agenda, Jewish Leaders Hope

A group of high-level North American Jewish leaders is encouraged that the religiously divisive issue of defining Jewish identity can be removed from Israel’s political agenda, United Jewish Appeal (UJA) national chairman Martin Stein said Thursday.

Stein had just returned to the U.S. from a trip to Israel with fellow Jewish leaders including Council of Jewish Federations (CJF) president Shoshana Cardin and top decision-makers of the United Israel Appeal in the U.S. and Canada.

They discussed with Israeli leaders and at a large press conference their concern that passage of an impending Knesset bill could severely strain Jewish unity.

The bill would have given Israel’s rabbinic courts sole authority to validate conversions, marriages and divorces performed abroad. A similar bill was defeated two weeks ago. The latest bill was at the last moment Wednesday not introduced by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. (See July 30 Bulletin.)

Reflecting prevailing political wisdom, Stein said he didn’t think time permitted another attempt at the vote before the current Knesset session ends next week.

Shas leader Yitzhak Peretz cancelled a meeting with the leaders, Stein told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. However, he said he and his colleagues told leaders of both major parties, including Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, that the Jewish identity issue must not be decided in a political venue.

“Shamir indicated to us that he has set up a committee to look into this, that he personally would like to see it resolved in a different arena, and that he would welcome any help we could do to change it from political to otherwise,” Stein said.

FORMERLY CASE-BY-CASE

He noted that the prickly but infrequent question of whether non-Orthodox converts to Judaism could receive immediate Israeli citizenship as Jews under the Law of Return used to be addressed quietly and case-by-case by former Interior Minister Yosef Burg.

With the small number of people directly affected by this issue, why, then, all the fuss?

“We’re not making it an issue,” Stein said. “The issue is made because of what it doesn’t say. When you tell me that my rabbi is not a rabbi (by not accepting that rabbi’s conversions, for instance) then you indicate to me that my shul is not a legitimate facility. I perceive myself as not a full-class Jew any more. The issue is the five million people that it affects indirectly.” He was referring to non-Orthodox North American Jewry.

The message got through to Israeli leadership, the UJA chairman indicated.

“The general feeling was that this is an issue that relates to the whole Jewish community, particularly America … that they understand after our visit that it is a most significant issue, that they’re willing to work with us to remove it from the agenda,” he said.

Stein added that he appreciated Shamir’s suggestion that the North American Jewish leaders bring together Labor and Likud leaders to agree that Jewish identity will no longer be used as a political football to keep government coalitions together or to threaten to rupture them. He didn’t elaborate.

“We had very positive productive meetings, learned more about how the political process works, and were encouraged to be continually involved by everybody we work with,” he said, to get the issue off the political agenda.

HINTS AT CONSENSUS HOPES

Stein said he supported taking the issue to “an international Beth Din (rabbinic court), and let everybody get together to decide if there have to be changes.”

Noting that half of world Jewry doesn’t follow the letter of Jewish law, he suggested that “maybe it’s time — I’m no authority — but there are plenty of able and smart people who sitting down could” devise Jewish legal compromises that “satisfy 85 percent” of Jews.

The changes in Jewish identity laws have been advocated by the Lubavitch Hasids in the U.S. Stein wouldn’t say what action he would attempt domestically other than, “We hope to meet with major religious, political figures in America.”

He added that CJF, and he hopes UJA, will bring “Knesset members to America to see how American Jews really live … I don’t know if they really understand pluralistic Jewry, how this pluralistic society works, the love for Israel that exists among all the Jews of America. For a lot of Jews, this represents their real commitment to Judaism.”

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