This Week in 1978 / Knesset Takes First Step to Make Jewish Conversions Reliant on Jewish Law

It's a slap in the face for a large part of the Jewish people, said the president of Reform Judaism's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Alexander Schindler, when he heard the results of the Knesset's discussion on the question of "who is a Jew."

The Likud and the religious parties rapidly passed a preliminary reading of the private member's bill to revise the definition of who is a Jew in the Law of Return: to the terms of conversion specified in the law, the term "according to halakha" would be added.

This was not the first stir caused by the "who is a Jew" question, which was formulated in a 1970 amendment to the Law of Return, whereby a Jew is "someone born to a Jewish mother or a convert, and is not a member of another faith."

In January 1974, representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements cautioned that adding the term "according to halakha" as advocated by the religious parties in Israel, Agudat Yisrael foremost among them, would lead to "a rift in the unity of the Jewish people and this would mean intervention by the secular State of Israel in the religious affairs and beliefs of Jews living beyond its boundaries"; because adding the term "according to halakha" would in effect undermine the Jewish identity of people converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis, as well as that of their offspring.

Haaretz reported at the time that Reform and Conservative rabbis argued "changing the Law of Return will create tension between Israel and world Jewry, because for the first time in its history, the Knesset, which is a secular authority, will presume to decide on the Jewishness and validity of Jewish, religious movements operating outside the state."

And now in 1978, four and a half years later, this threat received a parliamentary seal of approval, "a first step on the dangerous path of contempt of the law and of halakha," according to Yaakov Rosental, writing in Haaretz.

Rabbi Schindler felt "this is a shocking and divisive move, specifically at a time when unity is needed. ... This vote says that while Diaspora Jews' political and financial support of Israel is important, our children will actually be disqualified and not accepted in the state," he told Haaretz's New York correspondent Shlomo Shamir. The chairman of Agudat Yisrael of America, on the other hand, told Shamir that this amendment to the law should have been passed a long time ago and any delay in approving the law distorts the meaning of the concept of being Jewish.

Rosental recounted in his article the coalition history of this preliminary reading: "Last year, ahead of the formation of the Begin government, Agudat Yisrael obtained as part of the coalition agreement a promise from the original builders of the government [the Likud and the National Religious Party] that they would strive to achieve a Knesset majority in favor of amending the law and integrating the term 'according to halakha.' Now Agudat Yisrael is planning to ask for the fulfillment of this promise once their part is upheld after the completion of the effort to ease the granting of exemptions from military service to women."

Haaretz's editorial used harsh words to describe the Knesset proceedings, which took place as "the opposition was anesthetized."

"If an appeal to conscience and the basic concepts of parliamentary democracy do not speak to Likud members, it would have been fitting if they had least spoken up about it, because at a time when Israel faces a serious political and public relations battle, and when its image is at its lowest, what we need is not another clash with American Jewry, but rather every ounce of good will on their part. Whoever accepts at this time a bill that infuriates most of Western Jewry is putting his trust not in rational considerations, but on the mercies of heaven. If the Likud government continues on the path it has chosen, we will all be in need of this mercy." (Lital Levin )