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Friday, June 21, 2002 | return to: international


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Bombing disrupts debate at World Zionist Congress

by JESSICA STEINBERG and MATTHEW E. BERGERJewish Telegraphic Agency

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Neither did remarks by Chaim Chesler, treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization, who sparked a furor Tuesday when he said he prefers an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who might not be Jewish according to Jewish law "to someone who prays three times a day but stays in Brooklyn."

"It was a slap in the face," said Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of World Mizrachi, as well as the head of the delegation of the Religious Zionists of America.

"It was inflammatory and cruel, and the worst part is that this isn't the time to be throwing bricks at each other," said Ganchrow, who was among those who rushed the convention center stage in protest after Chesler's remarks.

"Not when we're being blown up on buses."

The news of Tuesday's suicide bombing, which killed at least 19 Israelis, clearly rattled the delegates to the Zionist Congress, which is touted as the parliament of the Jewish people, bringing together delegates from all over the world.

The 750-seat congress convenes every four to five years to negotiate the policy of the World Zionist Organization, which makes up half the decision-making power of the Jewish Agency.

That means influence over the agency's $350 million budget, which focuses on immigration and absorption, as well as worldwide religious, political and educational programs.

But so did Chesler's remarks, which many saw as inappropriate given the sense of Jewish unity the congress was trying to promote.

In addition to discussing Jewish solidarity with Israel, a major debate was expected over whether and how to forge consensus over a resolution about Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Some saw the opportunity to push for the acceptance of religious pluralism and the acceptance by Israel of non-Orthodox religious streams.

Against this backdrop came Chesler's remarks, which were critical of Interior Minister Eli Yishai's handling of converts and Russian immigrants who come to Israel under the Law of Return, which enables citizenship for anyone with a Jewish grandparent.

"We should salute each and every immigrant who comes to Israeli under the Law of Return and we must battle against the discrimination of the Jews from Russia who are being transformed into second-class citizens," Chesler said.

His remarks caused an immediate uproar, prompting him to issue a statement, saying, "I do not seek argument but rather cooperation between the religious streams."

A national officer of the American Zionist Movement said he believed Tuesday's actions, both on the streets and in the convention center, would not effect the central debate over pluralism.

"Pluralism is a word which has created differences in the American community," Isaac Blackhov said. "Israelis do not understand it the same way as Americans, and it has an entirely different connotation."

Blackhov said he believed the word pluralism would be deleted from almost every resolution the Congress debates, because of its ambiguity.

But for Rabbi Uri Regev, one of Israel's strongest advocates of religious pluralism as the executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which represents the Reform movement in Israel, the fact that the largest number of Congress delegates come from synagogue-related organizations could mean that religious pluralism is the burning issue that must be discussed.

"This isn't just about raising money for kindergartens, and trauma centers and ambulances," Regev said. "We're trying to discuss and discover and ultimately decide Israel's future."

Elana Gershen Finkelstein, a New Jersey delegate for the Mercaz-USA, which represents the Conservative movement, said she believed Tuesday's attack "quieted the whole conference down."

"There are differences, but the background in which we have these discussions changed," she said, seated with her mother before a memorial to victims of terrorism, planned before Tuesday's attack.

"There are life-and-death issues."

For more JTA stories, go to http://www.jta.org


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