Diaspora Leaders Arrive in Israel to Lobby on ‘who is a Jew’s Issue
Menu JTA Search

Diaspora Leaders Arrive in Israel to Lobby on ‘who is a Jew’s Issue

Download PDF for this date

Ranking leaders of American Jewry demonstrated by their presence in Israel on Monday the depth of feeling of most American Jews against the proposed amendment to Israel’s basic immigration law, which would exclude persons converted by non-Orthodox rabbis.

Heads and former heads of North America’s major Jewish philanthropic agencies arrived here Monday night on an “emergency mission,” fresh from the 57th General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, which ended in New Orleans Sunday.

Martin Stein of Milwaukee, chairman of the United Jewish Appeal’s board of trustees, told Israeli television viewers Monday night that the unity and harmony of the Jewish people are at stake.

He noted that some 5 million American Jews are non-Orthodox or non-affiliated. Even among the Orthodox there is no unanimous support for the controversial legislation demanded by the Orthodox establishment in Israel, Stein pointed out.

He and seven mission colleagues are to meet Tuesday with Premier Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the chief rabbis of Israel and new members of the Knesset.

The so-called “Who Is a Jew” issue dominated the CJF assembly during its entire four days, starting last Wednesday.

Although the controversy has rankled Israeli-Diaspora relations for 20 years, it took on new urgency after the Nov. 1 elections in Israel.


Four ultra-Orthodox parties won 18 Knesset mandates among them to hold the balance of power, without which neither of the major parties, Labor nor Likud, could form a governing coalition in the 120-member Knesset.

The religious parties promptly established their price for cooperation: guaranteed swift passage by the next Knesset of an amendment to the Law of Return that would invalidate conversions performed by Conservative or Reform rabbis.

The practical effects of the proposed change would be minimal. There are few converts to Judaism who want to settle in Israel.

But, as Stein pointed out in a television news interview here, it is not only an Israeli issue. “It affects the American Jewish community,” he said.

“Diaspora Jews do not presume to dictate to Israel in its defense or other policies, since American Jews are not directly affected by them,” he said.

But the proposed legislation would “disenfranchise” many American Jews and render them “second-class citizens,” Stein said.

The American mission coincided with the arrival here Sunday of 750 leaders of British Jewry, who are launching their annual Joint Israel Appeal campaign in Jerusalem.

The mission is headed by Trevor Chinn, president of the JIA, and Lord Jakobovits, chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth. Jakobovits, who is Orthodox, strongly opposes the “Who Is a Jew” amendment because of its divisiveness.


He declined to comment on the controversy, but expressed hope that the JIA delegation would encourage people to see that “over and above all the problems and arguments, we are committed to the support of Israel.”

Chinn was less reticent. He told reporters that the proposed amendment would affect many Jewish families, including his own.

“If the government decides to change the law, it will test our loyalty beyond what is acceptable,” he said.

Chinn said he spoke not only for Reform and Liberal Jews, who constitute 25 percent of British Jewry, but also on behalf of the mainstream British Orthodox, who “feel very strongly that a change in the law will be the wrong move.”

The Diaspora groups found a strong supporter in Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem, who has just returned from a visit to the United States.

He warned at a news conference and in radio and television interviews here that passage of the “Who Is a Jew” amendment would do incalculable damage to relations between Israel and American Jews.

He said the greatest danger is not any decline in donations and investments in Israel, but in a drop in Jewish community involvement in aiding Israel politically in Washington.

The mayor added that most Israelis do not grasp the depth of American Jews’ feelings about this issue. “I have never before seen a danger like this,” said Kollek, who has been dealing with American Jews for more than 40 years.

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