After three years of postponement, Israel’s High Court of Justice finally convened this week to consider the validity of two non-Orthodox conversions in Israel — and immediately sought to sidestep the issue.
At the very start of the nearly three-hour hour session, Supreme Court President Aaron Barak surprised the plaintiffs with this question: would they be content having the state recognize the nationality of the two adopted children as Jewish, but leave their religious status blank?
The president of the Conservative movement in Israel, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, told The Jewish Week by phone from Jerusalem that he was floored by the proposal but decided to let the parents of the two children make the final decision. Although the court called a 30-minute recess to allow them to discuss the idea, Rabbi Bandel said the parents were adamantly against it from the start.
“They said we asked you to convert the children in a religious ceremony with a mikveh and in front of the ark because it was important for us that the children be accepted as Jews in faith and nationality,” recalled Rabbi Bandel.
The Conservative conversions in Israel were performed in 1995. The Ministry of Interior refused to register the children as Jews, insisting that the state recognized only Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. Non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel continue to be recognized.
Although the parents of 12 families initially filed the petition with the court, 10 dropped out. Of the two remaining, one family lives in California. The justices barred the release of their names to protect the privacy of the children.
During the proceedings, the court rejected a request from the government’s representative, Yehuda Shaffer, to delay action on the case until all out-of-court attempts to settle the matter have been exhausted. He read a lengthy statement from Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who argued that the case “goes to the heart of the state as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Rabbi Bandel said that based upon the questioning by the justices — all 11 members heard the case, a highly unusual practice — it was clear that they were not intimidated by last week’s demonstration by 250,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews at the entrance to Jerusalem. The demonstrators were protesting court rulings they view as anti-religious. The court, for instance, has ruled that non-Orthodox representatives could not be barred from sitting on religious councils, which handles such matters as divorces, kashrut supervision and the distribution of money to yeshivas.
At the conclusion of the proceedings, Barak asked Shaffer to respond to the proposal posed to the families. Shaffer asked why, since the families had already rejected it. But the justices insisted that a reply was necessary, saying they could rule against the wishes of the petitioners. The government response is to be presented at the next hearing. No date was set.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s diaspora affairs adviser, Bobby Brown, later insisted that both cases could be resolved out of court. He said he met with one of the families and offered to “hold their hand as they went through the process to get their son registered as a Jew so he would not have a problem. I am still awaiting a response.”
“These are people who would rather have a political fight and I would rather solve individual cases,” said Brown.
But the petitioners’ lawyer, Hila Keren, addressed that assertion in court, telling the justices that the parents had tried to work through the Orthodox rabbinate and had turned to the Conservative movement only after years of stonewalling.
“Now you are talking about [making them undergo] yet another conversion?” she asked.
Brown told The Jewish Week that the court’s proposal was an attempt to find a “compromise and not create a tremendous rift in Israeli society.”
But Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said he believed the justices were “looking for a way to escape from making a key decision.” But he said it was an unacceptable proposal because “one cannot separate Jewishness from nationality. These children were legally adopted and so are automatically citizens of the state.”
He also speculated that the court may have chosen to delay a ruling until after the May 17 elections.