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Address in the Knesset by Prime Minister Peres on the Law of Return

(January 16, 1985)

The government of national unity was based on the maintenance of the religious status-quo and on an effort to maintain the unity of the nation. Mr. Peres was replying to motions to the agenda presented by religious members of the Knesset, designed to ammend the Law of the Return in such a manner that the test of Jewishness would be the Halachic (traditional Jewish law). He objected to the proposal saying that at this time, unity was far more important than divisiveness which the amendment was certain to create between Israel and Diaspora communities. He appealed to both the orthodox and the secular camps not to exacerbate matters at this time. The motions were defeated. Text:

Mr. Chairman, distinguished Knesset, the national unity government did not take its own stand on the issue under debate, and the motions to amend the law presented to the Knesset therefore fall under the category of private motions but the national unity government was established on two basic premises: to maintain the status quo in religious matters, and to act to maintain the unity of the nation and fully exploit that which is common to us all.

The government is not a religious authority, as S.Y. Agnon has said: "At the moment, religion and state are like two neighbors who don't get along very well." Addressing David Ben-Gurion, he added: "Now that the safety and welfare of the country are dependent upon you, it would be wise to cease dealing with matters of religion, for better or worse, so that you will be free to devote yourself to matters of state. "

Indeed, we are currently faced with many serious, urgent matters of state, and it is doubtful whether the time is propitious to discuss a subject which is more in the sphere of religious law than of state. If I am participating in this discussion, it is not because I pretend to be an authority on Jewish law, but rather out of a determined and sincere desire to strengthen the ties that bind our people, and to maintain both potential and existing open channels to Israel.

For the raison d'être of Israel is the ingathering of all the tribes of Israel in the Promised Land. The State of Israel was established by some Jews to solve the problem of all Jews, both religious and secular. And for this reason, it was also decided that it is a fundamental right of every Jew, however religious however Zionist to immigrate to Israel and settle here.

For this reason and this reason alone was the Law of Return passed. A law which, more than being religious in nature, is fundamentally Zionist. This law has no real effect on religious affairs or personal status. This is a law which deals with a transition period, with the right of return, with the issue of immigration from the Diaspora to Israel. It neither requires the religious public to alter its customs, nor forces upon it definitions in the religious sphere. It does not weaken the authority of the Rabbinical courts to decide on marital issues or other matters which fall within their sphere under religious law, i.e. Orthodox Jewish law.

Despite this, and for reasons which are historical and sometimes ideological, the law and the attempts to amend it have aroused fierce controversy within the Jewish people, a controversy whose weight is upsetting the wholeness and unity of our people.

At this moment I do not wish either to defend or attack the law or its amendment. I wish to defend the unity of the nation and attack the failure to take into consideration the difficulties entailed in its existence.

I call on the leaders of the religious streams to regard the issue in its national contexts too, and I ask the leaders of the political parties not to deliberately annoy others on an issue charged with such deep emotions. I beseech the diaspora leaders and the representatives of Israel to meet with one another, do discuss matters with all of us and find a way which will answer both Zionist needs and religious views. Let those that fear the Lord speak with one another, and let those who love Zion address one another.

I would like to tell my friends in the Orthodox camp: You know that parliamentary legislation with a resounding majority one way or another cannot replace the spiritual effort required to save parts of our nation which are failing away from us. Legislation cannot change the ways of life and spiritual inclinations of that section of our nation which willingly accepts oblivion and is undergoing a terrible process of assimilation. Legislation is not a dam which can hold back the dangers of intermarriage, nor can it save those of our people who are knowingly or unknowingly sinking into the depths of the "silent holocaust" which threatens our existence. After all, we all face the same dreadful problem - how have many Jews become apathetic and alienated, ignorant and lacking in conscience insofar as their Jewish and national world is concerned? These Jews are not necessarily Orthodox or Reform, Zionist or anti-Zionist; they are simply vanishing. They are being swallowed up into their social environment and are being lost to the Jewish people for ever.

When confronted by this picture, we must stand together and help all those who are fighting assimilation, encourage those who are trying to fight distance and detachment. We must all create a good atmosphere of belonging, and we must make every effort to bring the fading "I" nearer to the collective "We," and we draw the diaspora closer to Israel.

I would like to say to my friends in the secular camp: We are one family in the national sphere. We are simultaneously like and unlike; each one of us is unique, but we all share a common destiny. We must all work to create and preserve the great Jewish dialogue which derives from our tremendous past and which is necessitated by the need to blend the transitory and present with the permanent and infinite, to link the fate of Israel with the eternal one of Israel.

Let us not exacerbate matters, let us not cause divisiveness, let us not bury our heads in the sand. Our objectives are different and our opinions vary. There are two paths before us: That of disregard and that of openness, that of division and that of dialogue.

We all pray that many more immigrants from east and west, both distressed and affluent, "they... that were lost in the Land of Assyria and they that were dispersed in the Land of Egypt," - "and ye shall be gathered one by one, o ye children of Israel." Approximately half the Jewish people lives in the United States. Shall we disregard them? Meanwhile, we in Israel must be careful that the state not interfere in a debate pertaining to the world of Jewish law. It is not the state which should decide in a dispute between the Reformer and the Conservative, between those who hope and those who fear, between the strong emphasis and the weak emphasis. It is not the state which should decide religious controversies and Jewish legal disputes. Quite the contrary: The state should call and attract all the members of this people. May each and every one come in his own way to the shared law.

Let not a law constitute an impediment to a Jew - even a Jew who has sinned and let no legislation be an obstacle in the way of the ingathering of all the dispersed, the bringing together of those from afar. At this very moment, when we are witnessing the return of home of Jews from the four corners of the earth, let us not confront them with conflicts and disputes, internal quarrels, disputes over ideas. We have only just stood together, united and deeply enthralled at the sight of the arrival of an ancient branch of Jewry in its homeland. We have all risen above the hardships of the times to welcome this unifying ingathering.

The Law of Return or its amendment will not, in the final analysis, determine the lives of Jews in Israel, nor will they alter the conduct of Jews outside Israel; but they will determine the reciprocal relations between Israel and the diaspora, and may even affect the extent to which Israel's gates will be open. Therefore, members of the Knesset, before tempers flare, I would reiterate my appeal to representatives of all the camps of the Jewish people, to its leaders, to the camps themselves: Let dialogue precede the decision; let us seek a way out, not a gravestone. "Who is a Jew" was already determined many generations ago. Our generation is charged with providing an answer as to how to preserve the Jewish people in the face of changing conditions and changing dangers, how to keep it together, with all of its streams and ideas, both under conditions of sovereignty and throughout the diaspora.

It is a great privilege to be a Jew. It is a great duty to preserve the Jewish people; and both the privilege and the duty call for an attitude of "not in wrath," of patience, of goodwill. This is how we shall perform our duty properly.

Mr. Speaker, we reject outright the proposal to demand a special majority of 80 MK's. This is a constitutional change, and it cannot be introduced into law casually. We object to the two amendments which have been proposed. The time is not ripe. I would also like to tell my good friend (MK) Avner Sciaky: We did propose prior discussion. This is not a party issue - you know that - and I was under the impression that you even were inclined to hold such a discussion. At any rate, until a discussion is held, and so that the Knesset won't be faced with new surprises every time, I propose that all the motions be struck from the Knesset agenda.

Source: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs