JERUSALEM (Nov. 22)
American Jewish leaders trying to remove the divisive “Who Is a Jew” issue from Israel’s political agenda got a chilly rebuff Tuesday from Premier Yitzhak Shamir.
He promised, however, to set up a “consultative process on the Law of Return with the Jewish Agency, which will act on behalf of world Jewry.”
The proposed amendment to the Law of Return, Israel’s basic immigration law, would exclude persons converted by non-Orthodox rabbis from automatic Israeli citizenship. It was officially placed on the Knesset agenda Tuesday.
The initiative was taken by Avraham Verdiger of Agudat Yisrael, Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party, Shlomo Dayan of Shas and Michael Eitan of Likud.
Clearly it was a slap at the delegation of Diaspora leaders who came here Monday to try to avert what they see as an inevitable schism between Israel and Diaspora Jewry if the controversial amendment is adopted.
No date was set for debate because the new Knesset, sworn in only the day before, has not yet elected its presidium, whose members establish the agenda.
The draft amendment adds the words “according to halacha” (religious law) to the definition of a Jew as a person born of a Jewish mother or converted.
Although of minor importance in practical terms, the addendum is being perceived as a denigration of the vast majority of affiliated Jews in the United States and other Western countries who are not Orthodox.
SAYS ANXIETIES ARE MISPLACED
The religious parties, which won 18 Knesset seats among them in the Nov. 1 elections, demand swift adoption of the amendment as their price for participation in a Likud-led coalition government.
Shamir, whose lieutenants were holding parallel coalition talks with Labor, apparently is determined not to upset the religious extremists, who will most likely be his coalition partners.
The prime minister was reportedly cold and blunt to an eight-member “emergency mission” from the United States and Canada that visited him Tuesday. The delegation includes past and present leaders of the United Jewish Appeal, Council of Jewish Federations, United Israel Appeal and UIA-Canada.
Shamir tried to persuade the leaders that Diaspora Jewry’s anxieties are exaggerated and misplaced, the same line taken by ultra-Orthodox leaders, some of whom have called the Diaspora response “hysterical.”
Shoshana Cardin, immediate past president of the Council of Jewish Federations, who heads the American delegation, told reporters after the meeting, “Mr. Shamir has an ongoing commitment to the religious parties as he tries to form a government. He said he’ll see if there is a way to remove this as a burning issue of the day.”
But Shamir’s spokesman, Yossi Achimeier, said the premier would stick to his promise to the religious parties. He claimed the issue is an internal Israeli matter and should not create a rift or misunderstanding in the Diaspora.
Speaking to reporters after meeting Shamir, the Diaspora leaders took pains to condemn any implied threat to cut back on support for Israel because of the dispute.
SOLIDARITY NOT IN QUESTION
“The covenant from Sinai, which is 3,000 years old, will not be altered because of any momentary crisis” between Israel and world Jewry, said Mendel Kaplan of South Africa, chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency.
“The solidarity of Diaspora Jewry with Israel is not in question whatsoever,” Cardin asserted.
Israel Radio reported that Shamir tried to convince the American delegation that he has “no preference” for any branch of world Judaism and that the proposed legislation does not imply the “disenfranchisement” of Jews abroad.
Shamir called the Diaspora reaction “exaggerated and emotional.”
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement later Tuesday describing Shamir’s meeting with the American Jewish leaders.
The statement said Shamir “stressed that for him and for the Israeli government and people, Jewish unity is a subject of the utmost importance,” that “there is no question whatsoever of disqualifying any Jew, and that any perception to the contrary is regrettable.”
It said the prime minister “noted his strong determination that the process of permanent dialogue and consultation between Israel and world Jewry continue.”
The statement said the Jewish Agency would represent world Jewry on this issue and that the chairman of its Board of Governors would announce the names of those participating in the process.
Before the session with Shamir, the delegation met with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, head of the Labor Party, who indicated he fully supports their position.
The leaders also met with Israel’s two chief rabbis, Avraham Shapira (Ashkenazic) and Mordechai Eliahu (Sephardic), with whom they reportedly made little headway.
‘LIABLE TO SPLIT THE JEWISH PEOPLE’
Cardin, in the meantime, tried to explain to Israelis why the issue of amending the Law of Return is of such urgent concern to Diaspora Jews.
In a late night television interview Monday, she noted that the problem of defining “who is a Jew” is not political, but religious and spiritual, and should be resolved by the religious leadership, not politicians.
She said there is no truth to Orthodox claims that the amendment would affect only Israel and Israelis.
“The prime minister and other Israeli politicians must be made to realize that this is a very serious matter,” Cardin said. “It is liable to split the Jewish people.”