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Facing U.S. Pressure, Shamir Urges Postponement of ‘who is a Jew’ Vote

June 14, 1988
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Premier Yitzhak Shamir reportedly asked the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael and Poale Aguda parties Monday to postpone reintroducing the controversial “Who Is a Jew?” bill in the Knesset, where it has been scheduled for a vote Tuesday.

Shamir intervened, according to an Israel Radio report, as a broad range of American Jewish leaders mobilized to oppose the legislation, warning that it would polarize the Jewish people and create a schism between Israel and diaspora Jewry.

The legislation is an amendment to the Law of Return, which presently defines a Jew as either a person born of a Jewish mother or one who has converted to Judaism. The amendment would recognize as Jews only those converts who had undergone conversion “according to halacha” (religious law).

Under this change, persons converted by non-Orthodox rabbis would be denied Jewish identity in Israel, and the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism with which the vast majority of world Jewry is affiliated would be declared, in effect, illegitimate.

The religious parties in Israel have tried unsuccessfully for years to push the amendment through the Knesset. They have had support from some ultranationalist right-wing groups. The measure repeatedly has been defeated, sometimes narrowly, other times by large margins. Under law, it can be resubmitted every six months.


Some religious and Herut Knesset members apparently believe they have a chance for success in this pre-election period. Shamir, by his intervention, indicated he believes otherwise.

Likud and especially its Herut Party branch has supported the amendment. Former Premier Menachem Begin vowed to the Orthodox parties that he would see it through Parliament when Likud took power in 1977. But he failed to muster the votes in his own party.

Shamir, who succeeded Begin, is anxious to woo the religious parties into a possible governing coalition if the November elections are close.

At a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York on June 6, he equivocated on the issue.

Asked by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, executive director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, if he would instruct his supporters in the Knesset to oppose the bill, Shamir replied that he hoped the matter would be resolved by “cooperation” and “discussion” among the parties.

The Reform leaders saw that as a hint that some way to avoid yet another showdown on the issue might be worked out.

Shamir’s political rival, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who heads the Labor Party, has called for a 10-year moratorium on any proposal to amend the Law of Return.

A key role in the mobilization effort against the amendment is being played by the movement of Reform Judaism in the United States, joined by leaders of Conservative Judaism, Hadassah, the Council of Jewish Federations, Friends of Labor Israel and other groups.


Cables have been sent to Shamir, Peres and the Knesset factions of Labor and Likud, expressing opposition to the proposed changes. Passage of the measure, these messages warned, “would shatter the unity of the Jewish people and be especially disastrous at this time of political crisis.”

In New York, the board of trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational arm of Reform Judaism in America, resolved Sunday to urge Knesset members to resist continued legislative attempts to amend the Law of Return.

American Jewish leaders, in addition to their private calls and public representations to the politicians, have gone directly to the Israeli public.

An advertisement appeared in major newspapers here Monday sponsored jointly by the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Jewish Appeal, the principal fund-raising bodies for Israel in the United States.

The ad, an open letter to all Knesset members, referred to the “tragically divisive consequences” of the proposed amendment. The letter warned that those who voted for it “would bear responsibility for sowing the seeds of discord between the Jews of Israel and of the diaspora.”

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