Diaspora Jews Called ‘hysterical’ As Aguda Presses ‘who is a Jew’

The new head of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party has called Diaspora protests over impending “Who Is a Jew” legislation “hysterical.”

Rabbi Moshe Zeev Feldman insisted in an interview Tuesday night that Jews in America and elsewhere “don’t know what is being talked about. We are defending the Jewish people.”

Feldman’s remarks demonstrated the strong impact in political and diplomatic circles of mounting Diaspora pressure over the legislation, which would further delegitimize non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.

Protests, especially from the powerful American Jewish leadership, are aimed at Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s agreement with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Shamir has promised that the “Who Is a Jew” amendment to the Law of Return will be passed by the Knesset within weeks of a Likudled government taking office.

The amendment would disqualify conversions to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis and deny such converts the right of automatic Israeli citizenship.

Some Likud politicians believe the storm will pass once the law is changed and recedes from memory. They note that number of non-Orthodox converts desiring to become Israelis is minuscule.

But in the diplomatic service, there is a growing sense of alarm that a rift with Diaspora Jewry could grow to critical proportions.

The vast majority of affiliated Jews in the United States and other Western countries belong to the Reform or Conservative movements.

The amendment demanded by the religious parties here is seen as a denigration of those Jews who have always been in the forefront of financial, political and moral support of Israel.

CHANGING LAW IS ‘FIRST PRIORITY’

Feldman, who will head the Aguda’s five-man faction in the new Knesset, led the party delegation that negotiated terms with Shamir for its participation in a Likud-led coalition.

Feldman reiterated Wednesday that the “Who Is a Jew” issue is the Aguda’s “first priority,” and the sine qua non for his party’s participation in the government.

Feldman and others in the Orthodox bloc admit they also want to enforce Sabbath observances on Israel’s largely secular population.

That agenda has not gone over well with many Israelis, and some have threatened bloodshed if there is any attempt at religious coercion.

Meanwhile, Aguda sources want reassurance of Shamir’s commitments to their agenda even if Labor were to join a broad-based coalition with Likud.

At the moment, such a coalition does not seem likely. Labor Party ministers seemed dejected after a meeting with Shamir and his lieutenants Tuesday night.

According to the Laborites, one key issue is the makeup of the Inner Cabinet.

Labor wants its composition to continue to consist of five ministers of each party.

Other issues are agreement on policy guidelines and either the Foreign or Finance Ministry portfolios for Shimon Peres, the Labor Party chairman.

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