Zionist Congress Erupts Into Fistfights : Delegates to Gathering in Israel Criticize Coercion, Patronage


The 31st World Zionist Congress erupted from torpor into strife today with delegates from around the world attacking religious coercion and political patronage in Israel.

Disputes at the five-day Congress, which opened on Sunday, boiled over briefly into fistfights as rightists furious at the allegations demanded an apology be made to Israel’s chief rabbis.

Speakers deplored Orthodox Judaism’s monopoly on religious affairs in Israel and efforts by religious parties to restrict the definition of “who is a Jew” and to ban entertainment in Jerusalem on the Jewish Sabbath.

“Messianic politics is madness,” declared Rabbi Arthur Herzberg, a senior leader of liberal Jews in the United States, to applause.


He said that if the religious parties were not prepared to be pragmatic, there would have to be a complete separation of synagogue and state.

Veteran religious politician Yosef Burg, a minister in Israeli governments for more than 30 years until he retired last year, was jeered when he criticized a coalition between the Labor Party and Liberal and Reform Jews at the Congress.

Fistfights broke out on the conference floor when a rightist Liberal Israeli delegate, Uzi Cohen, demanded that the Congress apologize to Israel’s chief rabbis.

Security men grabbed young rightist delegates and the chairman silenced Cohen.


Ruth Popkin, a reform Jew and head of the powerful American women’s Zionist organization Hadassah, said: “The first thing that happens when we arrive in Israel is that we are attacked.”

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres faced a barrage of questions criticizing Orthodox efforts to change the Law of Return, under which all Jews are entitled to citizenship in Israel, and the carving up of Jewish agency jobs by Israeli political parties.

Peres pledged to oppose the proposed legislation.