Diaspora Outcry Prompting Parties to Reconsider a Unity Coalition

Diaspora Jewry’s determined efforts to have the divisive “Who Is a Jew” legislation removed from Israel’s political agenda may influence the composition of the next government.

The latest American Jewish leader to speak out against it was Morris Abram, chairman of the powerful Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

He warned at a news conference here Monday that a law which would “change the principle of one destiny” for the entire Jewish people would certainly be “a mistake.”

As he spoke, another group of American Jewish leaders, representing 27 national organizations, landed at Ben-Gurion Airport to join in the ongoing lobbying effort with government ministers and politicians.

All of this pressure being brought to bear on a single issue is viewed here as a factor in Likud’s efforts to establish a broad governing coalition with the Labor Party.

If it succeeds, observers here believe the proposed amendment to the Law of Return demanded by the ultra-Orthodox parties will once again be defeated in the Knesset.

A broad coalition would eliminate Likud’s dependence on the religious parties to establish a governing majority in the 120-member Knesset.

Premier Yitzhak Shamir would no longer be bound by his promise to the religious parties to push through the amendment, which would deny automatic Israeli citizenship to persons converted by non-Orthodox rabbis.

‘SYMBOLIC PROBLEM’ FOR DIASPORA

Shamir, the Likud leader, discussed the prospect of a national unity government Monday night with Shimon Peres, who heads the Labor Party. (See story on Page 2.)

Diaspora Jewry is aroused by the “Who Is a Jew” issue because the proposed change would delegitimize Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism with which the vast majority of Diaspora Jews are affiliated.

Abram refused to speculate on the possible fate of the Orthodox-inspired amendment when he spoke to reporters. He said he was not qualified to comment on the details of Israel’s political process.

Although he made clear that he thought the measure was unfortunate, he stressed to the reporters that he was speaking as “an individual observer,” not in his capacity as chairman of the Conference of Presidents.

The conference is an umbrella organization of 48 national Jewish organizations in the United States and Canada. Its purpose is to speak with a single voice on matters of concern to Israel and Jews generally.

Many of the individual organizations differ politically and ideologically.

Abram explained that the Conference of Presidents avoided debates or pronouncements on issues of a theological nature, because its “power and influence lies in the fact that it speaks with one voice.”

But he clearly implied that the “Who Is a Jew” battle was a central issue in the series of meetings he has had this week with top Israeli leaders.

He declined, however, to discuss those conversations. Abram was accompanied by the executive director of the conference, Malcolm Hoenlein.

Abram stressed that redefining who is a Jew in Israel is a serious “symbolic problem” for many American Jews, because it seems to them to mean the exclusion of some Jews “even though this is not intentional.”

DECRIES ‘ORTHODOX-BASHING’

“It is an extremely divisive issue,” Abram declared. He said supporters of the legislation “do not understand the depth of feeling” their “proposal arouses among its opponents.”

At the same time, Abram said descriptions of the amendment as “catastrophic” are “perhaps a little too strong.” That was the term used by Leon (Arye) Dulzin, former chairman of the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency Executive.

Abram also took an opportunity to deplore “Orthodox-bashing” by Diaspora Jews who are upset about the drive to amend the Law of Return.

It is “a terrible thing,” he said, urging Jews “in the interests of the unity of the Jewish people” to “keep emotions cool and get the facts straight.”

But the American Jewish leader injected a personal note. “I have so many friends and members of my family who would be affected if they were to exercise (their right to Israeli citizenship). It isn’t that they intend to exercise these rights. It is the symbolic issue,” he said.

Abram’s first wife underwent a Reform conversion, according to the Jewish Press, a Brooklyn tabloid. The paper claimed in a recent edition that he is concerned his children and grandchildren may one day not be recognized as Jews in Israel.

NEXT STORY