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Four Prominent U.S. Jews Warn Against Amending Who is a Jew Law

August 3, 1984
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Four prominent Amer- ican Jews warned here today that any amendment to the Who is a Jew law might split the unity of the Jewish people and create serious breaches in Israel-diaspora relations.

The warning was raised at a press conference by Theodore Mann, president of the American Jewish Congress, Dr. Simon Greenberg, vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of American, Rabbi Jack Cohen of B’nai B’rith, and Rabbi Richard Hirsch of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Their organizations published a quarter page ad in The Jerusalem Post entitled “Am Ehad — Preserve Our Unity.”

The call was part of an overall effort by the non-Orthodox trends in Judaism to foil attempts by the religious parties in Israel to secure a promise from whichever party forms the next government to change the Who is a Jew law so that it would recognize only those conversions performed according to halacha (Jewish law), that is, according to the Orthodox interpretation of halacha.

The present Who is a Jew law, or the Law of Return, gives every Jew the right to enter Israel and receive automatic citizenship. It was adopted shortly after Israel declared its independence in 1948. It applies to born Jews and converted Jews, but does not establish criteria for such conversions.


The four American Jews, who said they represented some four million Jews in the United States, warned if an amendment is introduced to change the law, aliya from the U.S. would diminish, and also possibly financial support for Israel. They pointed out, at the press conference, that if an amendment was adopted, it would exclude anyone converted to Judaism by a non-Orthodox rabbi. They also said that most American Jews regard themselves as either Conservative or Reform, even those who are not actually affiliated with synagogues.

Monn said if the amendment was adopted, it would merely be a political and not a religious act. He said the non-Orthodox Jews could live with the fact that the Israeli religious authorities do not recognize their conversion, but one would not be able to accept that this would become state law. “I don’t want the State of Israel to tell me that we are something less than Jewish,” he said, because we do not accept the Orthodox point of view.

Mann said the objection of the non-Orthodox to the amendment in no way meant they were interfering in Israel’s internal affairs. The Knesset was a secular body — which also has members who are non-Orthodox and even non-Jews — and it could not decide for world Jewry what was the proper religious path.

Although an amendment to the Who is a Jew law would not have any immediate affect on Israeli diaspora relations, Mann warned that a long-term consequence would be steady erosion of sympathy of non-Orthodox American Jews toward what they would regard as their State, too.

Cohen suggested that many American Jews would, as a consequence of an amendment to the law, choose to support an organization of their choice to aid financially, rather than give an overall support to Israel.


Hirsch pointed out that as a result of an amendment, “We may face a situation in which a very high percentage of Jewish people may not be considered Jews” in Israel. He urged that representatives of all Jewish religious trends meet to discuss the problem and to propose solutions. He said the non-Orthodox trends understood the concerns of Orthodox Judaism, but there was no understanding by the Orthodox in return.

“Let our religious groups sit around the table and talk,” Hirsch said. “If (President Anwar) Sadat and (Premier Menachem) Begin could sit together, why can’t we do that? He said that within an hour, he could summon representatives from Jewish organizations throughout the world to work out the problem.

The Jewish leaders said they had already been in contact with various Israeli political parties to foil any changes in the Who is a Jew law. However, they declined to go into detail about their talks.

(In New York, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement, called on both Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres to reject “pressure from the Orthodox parties” to amend the Who is a Jew law as the price of their support in forming a coalition government. “Jewish unity must never become a bargaining chip on the table of political power,” Schindler said.) (By Gil Sedan)

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