Groups’ Plea on ‘who is a Jew’ May Be Overlooked by Shamir
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Groups’ Plea on ‘who is a Jew’ May Be Overlooked by Shamir

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American Jewish leaders expressed disappointment but not surprise Sunday at indications that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir may ignore their plea not to use the “Who Is a Jew” controversy as a political bargaining chip.

An ad hoc coalition of 27 organizations signed onto a statement Friday that said a proposed amendment to the 40-year-old Law of Return “would inflict enormous damage, actual and symbolic, on the Jews of the Diaspora.”

The law essentially defines who is considered legally a Jew in Israel and thereby entitled to automatic citizenship.

Professing their “devotion to the State and people of Israel,” the groups sent a cable to Shamir, Labor Party rival Shimon Peres and President Chaim Herzog saying they “reject any offer to divide our people by legislative action of the Knesset.”

The organizations also announced plans to send a representative delegation to Jerusalem later this month to discuss the issue with Israeli political leaders, including those of the Orthodox parties.

But the delegation’s mission may come too late. On Friday, an aide to the Likud prime minister said Shamir had promised Israel’s four Orthodox parties that he would ensure passage of the amendment by his government, in exchange for their support.

The amendment would change Israel’s basic immigration law to deny automatic citizenship to those converted by reform or Conservative rabbis. Both movements, representing approximately 90 percent of the affiliated Jews in the United States, have long argued that such a change would delegitimize them and alienate their adherents from Israel.


The Orthodox parties are able to demand the change because of their surprisingly strong showing in Israel’s elections. The four parties emerged with 18 of 120 Knesset seats, enough to represent the balance of power between Shamir’s Likud bloc and Peres’ Labor Party.

Reports from Jerusalem on Sunday indicated that Shamir had won the backing of the Orthodox parties and now has enough votes to assemble a governing coalition.

“It’s dismaying to hear that Shamir has made a deal, but I suppose that in the quest for political power anything goes,” Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of Reform Judaism’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations said in one of a series of telephone interviews the Jewish Telegraphic Agency conducted Sunday with Jewish leaders.

The Reform leader expressed anger at a statement by Shamir Cabinet Secretary Yossi Achimeier, who in announcing Shamir’s pledge to the Orthodox parties, said American Jewish resentment to the amendment “will calm down.”

“If Achimeier thinks this will ‘blow over’ after a month, then that is a misreading of the American Jewish community,” he said.

“Israel was created in order to be a place where every Jew can enter,” said Schindler, who arrived in this country as a refugee from Hitler’s Germany.


The Reform leader warned that new limitations on the law would alienate those Jews in the Diaspora affected by intermarriage and conversion.

Ira Silverman, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said Shamir’s pledge could lead to “deep and possibly irrevocable alienation.”

“It can start from anger and reduced interest in Israel because people feel disenfranchised, and lead to reduced tourism and reduced political and financial support. I’m not suggesting that as a threat, but it can lead to those unwanted results,” he said.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, also said he wasn’t surprised by Shamir’s pledge to the Orthodox parties.

He said it was possible that Shamir or other Israeli leaders do not understand the impact of a change in the “Who Is a Jew” definition on Diaspora Jews.”

Morris Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in a statement Saturday that changing the Law of Return would be “divisive” and would have “deep symbolic significance.”

But the Conference of Presidents, which includes a number of Orthodox groups, is not expected to take a position on the controversy.


Statements released this weekend show the extent of division even among Orthodox groups.

Nessim Gaon of Geneva, president of the World Sephardi Federation, said that even though Sephardic Jews “treasure our Orthodox tradition,” they fear that “political decisions may be adopted accommodating a fanatic and extremist point of view for reasons of political expediency.”

Gaon warned that “this will inevitably result in tragic dissension and strife within the Jewish people and the Diaspora.”

But according to Rabbi Max Schreier, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, various unnamed organizations in the Jewish community have launched “an avalanche of unbelievable hatred and hysteria” against the possibility of Shamir giving into Orthodox demands.

The 27 organizations signing Friday’s statement were Americans for Progressive Israel, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, Association of Reform Zionists of America, B’nai B’rith, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, Hadassah, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jewish Labor Committee, Jewish Theological Seminary, Labor Zionist Alliance, Mercaz, Na’amat USA.

Also, National Council for Labor Israel, National Council of Jewish Women, National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, United Synagogue of America, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, Workmen’s Circle, World Council of Synagogues, World Union for Progressive Judaism.

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