The Hands Of Esau
Israel is to be excused for not embracing Yassir Arafat and his
declaration of Palestinian statehood, even though the PLO leader
appears to have recognized Israel, at least implicitly, for the first time.
For Israel has a collective memory that goes beyond this week's
statement. And there is pain when she recalls the scores of PLO-
inflicted terrorist incidents against Israeli men, women and children
over the last two decades, Arafat's avowals as recently as last month
never to tolerate a Zionist racist state, and the PLO charter's rejec-
tion of Israel and the very history that led to the founding of the
Jewish state. After all, the PLO charter says: "Claims of historical
or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the
facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes
The Palestine National Council, the PLO and Arafat seem to be
looking past Israel towards the United States for a positive response,
after affirming UN Resolution 242 and proclaiming a Palestinian
state in the West Bank and Gaza. But what Israel seeks — and has
sought ever since she became a state — is a negotiating partner. And
the PLO's unilateral move, an effort to avoid dealing directly with
Israel, will not suffice. To date, the Palestinian declaration has not
even mentioned that dirty little word, "Israel."
Still, while there is no reason for Israel to embrace Arafat now,
she must not shut the door on the possibility of peace negotiations.
It is too easy to simply dismiss any PLO move as insincere and a
political tactic to undermine the Israeli position. That may very well
be the case, but Jerusalem should respond by preparing to deal with
the challenge of peace and encouraging a climate of diplomacy, even
while pointing out the fact that the Arafat initiative has gone only
Israel should call on the PLO to take the plunge: accept UN
Resolution 242 in unequivocal terms; make an explicit statement
recognizing Israel's right to exist; and clearly renounce terrorism.
Finally, this very week's Torah portion raises forth a powerful
echo from the past'and offers a lesson regarding the value of action
over words. We hear the words of our forefather Isaac as his younger
son Jacob approaches him for the blessing of the first-born. Jacob
had dressed in the furry clothes of his brother Esau, and when Isaac,
now blind, reaches out to touch him, he says in confusion, "The voice
is the voice of Jacob but the hands are those of Esau."
It is up to Israel to decide whether Yassir Arafat is still the bloody
hunter Esau or is sincere in his voice of the peacemaker Jacob.
Politics appears to be winning out over common sense in Israel
these days as Prime Minister Shamir, under pressure from the
religious parties, promises to seek an amendment in the next Knesset
that would change the definition of who is a Jew in the Law of Return.
What he either fails — or refuses — to realize is that such a change
may also affect the unity of the Jewish people and the strong sup-
port that Israel has always received from Diaspora Jewry, particular-
ly from the U.S.
The issue is complex and confusing, and touches more on sym-
bolic issues than legal ones. All in all, it is the wrong issue at the
wrong time, but let us first understand what it is all about.
The Law of Return automatically confers Israeli citizenship on
any Jew who seeks to emigrate to Israel. A Jew is defined as one
born of a Jewish mother or one who has converted to Judaism. The
proposed amendment would add the phrase, "according to Halacha"
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 18, 1988
(traditional Jewish law) in referring to conversions, thus excluding
those converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis or the children
of women converted by such rabbis.
On a practical level, the amendment would affect less than a
dozen people a year (since it would only apply to Reform or Conser-
vative converts making aliyah). But on a symbolic level, the leaders
of the Reform and Conservative movements, who make up 9 0 per-
cent of the American Jewish population, vigorously oppose the
amendment because they say it reduces their standing and ques-
tions their legitimacy.
While some Orthodox groups, particularly Lubavitch, approve
of the amendment, arguing that Halacha has always been the foun-
dation of Judaism, the Rabbinical Council of America and other
Orthodox groups have opposed the amendment on the grounds that
this is a religious rather than a political issue and should not be
determined by the Knesset. Indeed, when the amendment was nar-
rowly defeated last year, the swing votes were those of seven Arab
Knesset members. So in effect the very definition of who is a Jew
was determined by seven Arabs. Is this any way to settle a basic
religious issue that speaks to the foundations of Judaism?
We urged at that time, and now urge again, that this matter be
taken out of the political arena and be determined by religious
As for the religious parties in Israel now seeking greater in-
fluence in the government, we suggest that they, and the people of
Israel, would be far better served by inclusive rather than exclusive
religious efforts. For instance, instead of merely seeking ways to fur-
ther distance religious and secular Jews — by legislating strict Sab-
bath'observance or ensuring army deferments for rabbinical students
-= the religious parties should seek to offer more instruction of Jewish
laws and traditions in the schools and particularly in the army.
Imposing religious standards on those who do not want them only
creates hostility and widens the divide. Voluntary programs that
highlight the beauty and rationale of Jewish customs and beliefs
can narrow that dangerous division and bring Jews closer together.
The legal aspects of who is a Jew should be decided in a religious
context; the moral and ethical issues of what it means to be a Jew,
how and why Jewish values have meaning in Israeli society, cannot
be legislated. Amending the Law of Return can only divide the
Jewish people. But the religious parties can serve a vital purpose
in the new government by emphasizing the kind of tolerance and
education that can help make us Am Echad, One People.