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‘who is a Jew’ Debate Continues As CJF General Assembly Closes

November 21, 1988
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When a high-level delegation of Jewish philanthropic leaders arrives in Israel on an emergency mission Monday, it will be carrying a powerful message from North American Jewry.

The message is that any attempt to change the Law of Return through Israel’s political process could drive a deep wedge between the Jewish state and the Diaspora.

At stake is not merely the fate of a handful of non-Orthodox converts to Judaism living in Israel, but the unity of the Jewish people as a whole, according to leaders of the Council of Jewish Federations, which concluded its 57th General Assembly here Sunday morning.

The drive by Orthodox parties in Israel to deny automatic citizenship to immigrants converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis preoccupied the General Assembly from its opening plenary on.

Passionate discussions of the issue permeated nearly every session of the assembly, occasionally breaking out into white-hot exchanges.

But Shoshana Cardin, a past president of CJF, said anger is the wrong word to describe the depth of feeling here and in many quarters of the North American Jewish community.

Rather it is “pain and anguish that the unity of the Jewish people, Klal Yisrael, could be destroyed, could be shredded,” she said.

Israeli leaders must be aware of the “tremendous, tremendous trauma that will take place if we are not understood.”

Cardin, as head of a special CJF task force on the “Who Is a Jew” issue, is leading the high-level delegation of philanthropists arriving in Israel on Monday.

She will be joined by 11 leaders representing the top echelons of CJF, the United Jewish Appeal, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the United Israel Appeal in both the United States and Canada.

CJF apparently has scrapped plans to include representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on this particular mission.

But these and other constituencies will be represented on subsequent missions in the future.

Last Friday, four members of Congress joined a delegation to Jerusalem which warned Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that Jewish support for Israel may decline if the definition of who is Jewish is changed.

Rep. Jim Courter (R-N.J.), one of three non-Jewish New Jersey Republicans who made the trip, told reporters the legislators “don’t have the right to intervene in the internal politics of Israel.”

Nevertheless, he said, they were asked by their Jewish constituents to warn Israel that a change in the Law of Return “may impact eventually on U.S. legislation, appropriations, support and money” for Israel.

Next Sunday, more than 20 organizations will be represented by a delegation to Israel led by Rabbi Daniel Syme, vice president of Reform Judaism’s Union of American Hebrew Organizations, and Ruth Popkin, immediate past president of Hadassah.


The CJF/UJA leadership mission is to hold a news conference Monday evening in Jerusalem and meet Tuesday morning with Shamir. Shamir also has been invited to make a televised address Tuesday afternoon to Jewish communities across North America, via CJF’s satellite network.

Cardin received a telephone call on Shabbat from one of Israel’s chief rabbis, inviting the leaders to meet with him. She would not identify which chief rabbi, but said the delegation would try to meet with both of them.

But another Jewish leader’s efforts to meet with an influential rabbi on this issue were unsuccessful at last report.

Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe, reportedly declined a request to meet with National UJA Chairman Morton Kornreich, citing health reasons. Kornreich is said to have rejected offers to meet with top aides to the rebbe.

The Brooklyn-based rebbe, 87, who is now the spiritual mentor of Israel’s Agudat Yisrael party which won five seats in the recent elections, has been a driving force behind efforts to amend the Law of Return.

During the General Assembly, some delegates demanded that CJF take an active role in reducing the influence of the Lubavitch movement.

Raymond Epstein, a past CJF president, submitted a resolution Friday calling on “all Jews to cease providing funds to organizations anywhere in the world which support the proposed change in the Law of Return.”

It also called on the Jewish Agency, which distributes UJA funds in Israel, to cease funding institutions that support the proposed change.

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