U.S. Zionists Resist Change in 'Law of Return.'(changes in Israeli Law on Automatic Citizenship for Jewish Converts)

The Christian Century, January 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

U.S. Zionists Resist Change in 'Law of Return.'(changes in Israeli Law on Automatic Citizenship for Jewish Converts)


The leaders of the American Zionist Movement have urged the Israeli government to reject any legislation that would change current policies regarding religious conversions and automatic Israeli citizenship. In particular, the U.S. Jewish leaders urged Israel's Knesset, or parliament, to reject a proposal that would restrict legal recognition of all Jewish conversions to those approved by Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

The proposal is backed by Israel's ultra-Orthodox religious parties, a key part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government. The ultra-Orthodox generally refuse to recognize conversions undertaken by Reform and Conservative rabbis. Currently the Law of Return provides that anyone who is Jewish by birth or conversion has legal rights of settlement and citizenship in Israel without being subject to a religious test by the Orthodox rabbinate.

The resolution passed by the American Zionist Movement's national board urges the Israeli government "to refrain from coercion in matters of personal conscience and belief." It maintains that passage of the legislation empowering Orthodox rabbis to impose a religious test would be "repudiating a major portion of American Jewry" and would "create deep rifts" between the various branches of Diaspora Jewry (those living outside Israel) and between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. The American Zionist Movement is a New York-based group representing 20 national Zionist groups whose memberships total about 1 million U.S. Jews.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, in his first speech since becoming president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, sharply criticized Israel's political and spiritual leaders, arguing that Judaism is healthier in the U. S. than in Israel. "Israel has succeeded in defending her borders militarily, but not spiritually," Yoffie said December 13 at a meeting of the board of trustees of the UAHC, the congregational arm of Judaism's Reform movement. …

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