Second Wave of Diaspora Leaders Lobbying Israelis on ‘who is a Jew’

Leaders of 20 national Jewish organizations, more than half representing Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist groups, were scheduled to depart for Jerusalem Sunday night to protest proposed changes in the legal definition of who is a Jew in Israel.

The high-level mission, joining a delegation of leaders who arrived over the weekend, is another in a barrage of such lobbying visits by Diaspora Jews, leading to quips that Israel’s tourism industry is being saved by the controversy.

The missions are focusing their efforts on Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and members of his Likud bloc, who are in a position to give in to the demands of the Orthodox religious parties to amend Israel’ Law of Return.

The amendment would exclude non-Orthodox converts to Judaism from automatic Israeli citizenship, a move viewed by non-Orthodox groups as an effort to delegitimize their rabbis, if not the viability of their various movements.

Shoshana Cardin, past president of the Council of Jewish Federations and head of a special task force on the issue, urged federation leaders around the country last week to send delegations to Israel to meet with Shamir, who she said has promised to set aside time for as many visits as possible.

Cardin also chaired a delegation representing major North American philanthropic organizations that met last week with Shamir, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, the Sephardic and Ashkenazic chief rabbis, and members of the new Knesset.

They got no commitment from Shamir.

ABRAM, HOENLEIN MEET WITH SHAMIR

On Sunday, Morris Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and its executive director, Malcolm Hoenlein, spent 90 minutes meeting with Shamir.

Abram denied later that they had specifically discussed the “Who Is a Jew” controversy. Hoenlein said that traditionally, the Conference of Presidents, which represents Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups, has not dealt with the issue.

But the two men met later with Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, leader of Degel HaTorah, the smallest of the four religious parties in the Knesset.

On Monday, they will be joined by Max Fisher of Detroit, one of the most influential American Jewish leaders, for meetings with President Chaim Herzog and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, head of the Labor Party.

Also participating in the meetings will be Robert Asher, chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

Local organizations are also headed to Jerusalem. On Sunday night, five New York rabbis were scheduled to leave for Israel, followed on Tuesday by senior leaders of the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York.

Participants in the rabbinical mission include two prominent leaders of modern Orthodoxy in the United States, Rabbis Louis Bernstein and Haskell Lookstein.

Both have been close to the National Religious Party in Israel and both oppose the “Who Is a Jew” amendment at this time.

LOCAL FEDERATIONS GOING

Chicago is typical of other local communities that plan to send delegations. Maynard Wishner, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, was one of a number of leaders who participated in a live closed-circuit television conversation last week with Yossi Ben-Aharon, a top aide to Shamir.

Ben-Aharon wavered on whether the prime minister would reconsider his pledge to the Orthodox parties that he would ensure adoption of the “Who Is a Jew” amendment. Wishner’s disappointment with that position strengthened his resolve to head a delegation to Israel.

“It was precisely what we didn’t want to hear,” Wishner said Wednesday. “It means that the very issue is one of the matters for negotiation. It is our plea that it be removed.”

The high-level delegation leaving Sunday is co-chaired by Ruth Popkin, immediate past president of Hadassah, and Rabbi Daniel Syme, vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Other organizations sending representatives on the mission include: American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Americans for Progressive Israel, Association of Reform Zionists of America, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, Mercaz, Na’amat USA, National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, National Council of Jewish Women, Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, United Synagogue of America, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, Workmen’s Circle, World Union for Progressive Judaism and the World Council of Synagogues.

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