Drive to Pass ‘who is a Jew’ Worries U.S. Jewish Groups
Menu JTA Search

Drive to Pass ‘who is a Jew’ Worries U.S. Jewish Groups

Download PDF for this date

The attempt of Israel’s religious parties to resurrect the “Who is a Jew” amendment in coalition-building negotiations with Likud and the Labor Party is causing deep concern among major American Jewish organizations.

In separate cables sent after the religious parties’ stunning success in the elections became apparent, Zionist and religious organizations here urged Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir and Labor leader Shimon Peres not to allow “Who is a Jew” to become a bargaining chip.

Their concerns were heightened Wednesday, when all but one of the Orthodox parties said they would not be willing to participate in a government unless the ruling party guaranteed that the Knesset would pass the amendment.

The amendment would change Israel’s legal definition of a Jew to exclude people who are converted according to the standards of Reform or Conservative Judaism.

The Knesset has rejected the amendment over the past 10 years, saying it would delegitimize and thereby alienate Diaspora Jews, especially the clear majority of affiliated American Jews who are either Reform or Conservative.

Organizations cabling Israel included the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, Reform Judaism’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Association of Reform Zionists of America and Mercaz, which represents Conservative Judaism in the World Zionist Organization.

Last month, the Council of Jewish Federations also cabled Jerusalem, urging Shamir and Peres to bar negotiations over the issue.

“Our leadership sees it as a serious matter,” Carmi Schwartz, CJF executive vice president, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “We will convene our coalition on ‘Who is a Jew’ and discuss how we are going to react.”

Robert Lifton, president of AJCongress, said in his cable: “Any action to change this law would be a grave error, a betrayal of Jewish unity and would certainly alienate the American Jewish community.

“The principle behind the Law of Return must transcend partisan political gain,” he said.

Both Shamir and Peres have in the past assured American Jewish leaders that they would try to keep the amendment from becoming a political issue. Leaders of the Reform movement expressed the hope Wednesday that the two leaders would hold to those assurances.


But if the religious parties are successful in pushing the amendment, “there will be hell to pay here,” said Rabbi Joseph Glaser, executive vice president of Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Among Glaser’s concerns, and those of other leaders interviewed for this article, was that American Jews would perceive Israel as dominated by ultra-Orthodox parties and would curtail their contributions to the United Jewish Appeal.

But Glaser said that he has been reminding colleagues that the UJA and its chief beneficiary, the Jewish Agency, “are not politicized,” and cutting off contributions would only punish Israel’s citizens.

Schwartz of CJF said he did not think “Who is a Jew” would threaten contributions to federations and UJA.

“Some individuals may articulate that, but the largest portion of them will remain loyal to their responsibility.”

Nevertheless, CJF will in all likelihood battle the amendment, as it did earlier this year by joining UJA in placing advertisements in the Israeli press.


Other groups, mostly Orthodox, have criticized such direct involvement in Israel’s political process. But Schwartz defended the advocacy role:

“The largest portion of our constituents has asked us to take and activate a strong position on this. We are not taking a position on substance. What we are saying is that the Knesset is the wrong forum to adjudicate this issue.”

Some of the strongest support for the “Who is a Jew” amendment has come from the Lubavitch Hasidic movement.

This year, for the first time, Lubavitch made a direct appeal on behalf of a specific Israeli political party when it urged its Israeli adherents to cast their votes for Agudat Yisrael.

A spokesman for Lubavitch, Rabbi Yosef Friedman, acknowledged Wednesday that the amendment has largely been a Lubavitch initiative.

But Friedman said the amendment merely sets a standard for conversions that is acceptable to all denominations. He argued that rather than be divisive, the amendment should be seen as a unifying factor.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund