In a historic decision that will likely widen the secular-religious gulf in the Jewish state, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that people converted in Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis must be officially recognized as Jews by the Israeli government.
The court did not address the question of whether Reform or Conservative conversions were valid according to Jewish religious law. In practical terms the ruling leaves the Orthodox rabbinate in charge of lifecycle events such as weddings and funerals.
But even as Conservative movement leaders were hailing the decision as a great moral victory, they expected Orthodox Knesset members to rush legislation that would overturn it.
In the landmark 9-2 decision, the court ruled that the Interior Ministry must register as Jews Israeli citizens who were converted by the Conservative or Reform movements in Israel or abroad.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who seek to be considered Jews but don’t want Orthodox conversions could be affected.
Supreme Court President Aharon Barak based his decision on the long-standing precedent that the ministry’s population registry must list without question details given to them by Israeli citizens regarding their personal status.
The decision marks the first time the court has ruled on the non-Orthodox conversion of Israeli citizens living within the country. Citizens converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel have been accepted as Jews for a decade, but the Interior Ministry refused the requests of people converted in Israel to be registered as Jews on their identity papers.
“I think it’s a great moral victory for the Jewish people,” Rabbi Daniel Allen, president of the of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, told The Jewish Week after the decision was announced.
He said in the long term it appears Justice Barak is setting Israel on the path of separating church and state.
But in the short term, he expected a “long and important” struggle with Orthodox legislators, who as soon as the decision was announced, began taking steps to overturn the court. (Unlike U.S. tradition, it is not uncommon for Israeli lawmakers to overturn Supreme Court decisions.)
In fact, several hours after decision, Israel’s Minister of Interior Eli Yishai of the Shas party declared he would move legislatively to void the decision.
Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau criticized the ruling, asserting it “will very much confuse these ‘converts’ whose conversions, in my view, do not hold,” referring to persons who had undergone non-Orthodox conversions. “In my view it deepens the rift within the people, between them and the society,” he told Israel Radio. “There will be converts who are registered as Jews according to Jewish law and tradition, then there will be converts registered as Jews only according to the High Court’s ruling today, and they will be bandied about in a great storm.
“Their identity cards will be worthless,” Rabbi Lau continued. “Tomorrow, if they want to register to get married, the day after if they go to the Immigration Ministry to ask for their basket of benefits or citizenship, they’ll be told ‘No, you’re only thought of as a Jew on the population rolls, while as far as everything else goes, you remain in your goyishness.”
But Rabbi Allen said the phones in the Masorti offices in Israel are “ringing off the wall” with calls from former Soviet Jews “wanting to know how they can join the Jewish people.
“We have programs pretty much ready to go to do that, to do the teaching and conversions at a huge cost to us.”
Rabbi Allen said it was not clear how the decision would affect the Joint Conversion Institute, which has Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis jointly teaching conversion classes under a compromise plan created several years ago by the government to try and defuse the “Who Is a Jew” issue.
The conversion case, first filed by the Conservative movement in Israel and later joined by the Reform movement, has been lingering in the courts for three years.
Israel has recognized Reform and Conservative conversions performed overseas since the Supreme Court ordered it to do so in 1986. But non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel were exempted.
In 1995 the Supreme Court ruled that the Orthodox monopoly on conversions was illegal, but it did not directly order the state to accept non-Orthodox conversions and no government ever did.
Over the years the court repeatedly postponed hearings on petitions by some 50 people who demanded that the state register them as Jews after being converted by non-Orthodox rabbis.
The issue came to a head in 1998, when the Jerusalem District Court ruled that the state must recognize non-Orthodox conversions, saying it was inconsistent for non-Orthodox conversions to be valid when performed overseas, but not when performed in the country.
The state appealed, leading to this week’s ruling.
In a separate decision, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected a petition by leftist legislators on petitions calling for the annulment of an agreement extending yeshiva students’ exemption from army service for another two years.
The court ruled that the current system — where deferments have been approved in temporary legislation providing for an extension of deferments until March next year — is legal.
The case results from a 1998 Supreme Court ruling that declared the current system is illegal. According to that system, the defense minister automatically approves a deferment for any yeshiva student who declares, “Torah is his profession.” The Knesset was supposed to approve a new bill but it has been continually delayed.
Three Knesset members — Joseph Paritzky (Shinui) and Ran Cohen and Naomi Chazan (Meretz) — and attorney Yehuda Ressler filed suit, claiming the draft deferral system is unconstitutional because it favors one political group over another when it comes to serving in the Army.