Legislation defining "who is a Jew" in Israel would "wreak deep divisiveness and widespread disaffection" in the world Jewish community if it ever passed the Knesset, the outgoing president of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF) said Wednesday night.
"The political parties of Israel should not deal with this matter through the Knesset," Shoshana Cardin told some 3,000 delegates attending CJF’s 56th General Assembly here.
Speaking at the assembly’s opening plenary session, Cardin affirmed that it is not CJF’s role to "comment on what are and what are not appropriate conversion procedures, nor do we represent any specific ideology."
But likewise, she said, Israel’s major political parties should not exploit the longstanding controversy over whether people converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis should be recognized as Jews in Israel.
"This issue must not be used for political trading by the major parties either to fashion or to topple a government," Cardin said.
"Our hope," she added, "is that both major parties will reject any such attempt, for we have good reason to fear that such legislation will wreak deep divisiveness and widespread disaffection — neither of which would bode well for Israel or for diaspora Jewry."
Cardin commented on the issue in the course of explaining CJF’s extraordinary move earlier this year to urge Israel’s top leaders to block passage of laws amending the definition of "who is a Jew" in Israel.
The move was criticized by some as an unwarranted intervention in Israel’s domestic affairs and applauded by others concerned about an issue that Cardin said "has direct impact on diaspora Jewry."
Cardin also defended CJF’s intervention in another area of Israeli public policy: "securing needed changes within the Jewish Agency," the body that receives and distributes funds raised for Israel in the diaspora.
She appeared to be referring generally to a series of reforms that North American philanthropists have been urging the Jewish Agency to undertake in recent years.
But she also may have been referring indirectly to a move made by American fund-raisers last month to block the candidacy of Akiva Lewinsky for the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization executives.
Lewinsky, who some feel represents the "old guard" in the Jewish Agency, is expected to be the Labor Party’s candidate for the post, which is to be filled via elections at the World Zionist Congress, opening Dec. 6 in Jerusalem.
But because the agency’s Board of Governors has the right to "advice and consent" on nominees elected to top agency posts, the diaspora fund-raisers were effectively able to block Lewinsky’s election, though he may still run for the post.
(Lewinsky said in Jerusalem Wednesday that he would not withdraw his candidacy, despite the disapproval by the fund-raisers. See page 3.)
HELPING AGENCY IS AVOWED GOAL
Cardin said that CJF’s goal is to "help fashion that vital and unique international entity into the mechanism that will identify and respond to the human needs of Israel in the 21st century."
The Jewish Agency, she said, is the "designated instrument through which we collectively seek to be involved in creative nation-building in, and with, the people of Israel."
Cardin’s address also focused on a number of domestic concerns, as well as such international issues as the plight of Jews in the so-called countries of distress: Ethiopia, Iran, Syria and the Soviet Union.
She spoke proudly of "Operation Moses," the effort to airlift thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, which reached its peak in late 1984, but was then aborted when Israel’s confirmation of the secret exodus made world headlines.
Cardin described the operation as "one of the greatest human and Jewish lifesaving efforts." But she also was careful to point out that the effort "will remain incomplete so long as there are Jews in the Gondar and elsewhere in Ethiopia who aspire to Jerusalem."
Three years ago, when the CJF held its General Assembly in Toronto, a session was interrupted by boisterous activists who denounced the fund-raisers for ignoring the plight of the estimated thousands of Ethiopian Jews still trapped in their native land. Cardin’s remark appeared to be in their native land. Cardin’s remark appeared to be aimed at reassuring skeptics that CJF is committed to working on behalf of those Jews who wish to leave Ethiopia.
Demonstrating a commitment to work on behalf of "our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union," Cardin called on her thousands of listeners to attend the Dec. 6 "Mobilization to the Summit" in Washington, D.C., a massive demonstration on behalf of Soviet Jewry planned for the eve of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to the United States.
"We must demonstrate. We must let our people know, let America know, let our generation and the generations that follow know, that we responded to the plight and the inspiration of Soviet Jews," she said. "I expect to see each of you — all of you — in Washington on Dec. 6."
Cardin spoke of a meeting she and other national Jewish leaders had at the White House Tuesday with President Reagan. "He assured us of his unflagging determination to stress human rights and the plight of Soviet Jews when he meets with General Secretary (Mikhail) Gorbachev," she reported.
The plight of Soviet Jewry also came up during the opening plenary in a musical performance by the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. In addition to singing such old favorites as "Blowing in the Wind," lead singer Mary Travers spoke of a visit she made to the Soviet Union in which she met with Soviet Jewish refuseniks.
On short notice, she learned the Hebrew words to the biblical song "Dodi Li" (I Am My Beloved), which she sang with the refuseniks. The group performed the song for the CJF crowd Wednesday night in a rendition that moved many to join the chorus and others to tears.
The General Assembly continues through Sunday morning with four additional plenary sessions, a business session, 20 forums and more than 100 workshops on topics representing a wide range of domestic and international concerns.
Highlights will include addresses Thursday night by Premier Yitzhak Shamir of Israel and Sunday night by Jeane Kirkpatick, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
The convention, which is the largest annual gathering of North American Jews, also will hear addresses via satellite by recently released refusenik Ida Nudel, who is in Israel, and by Mendel Kaplan, newly elected chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, who is in Johannesburg.
Cardin is expected to be succeeded in the post of CJF president by Mandell Berman of Detroit.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.