Israel’s High Court Says Non-Orthodox Converts Are Jews

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – Israel’s Supreme Court dealt a major blow to the country’s powerful Orthodox establishment on Monday, ruling that people who convert to Judaism through reform and conservative movements in Israel are also Jewish and they have the right to become citizens.

The landmark ruling, 15 years in the making, focused on the incombustible question of who is Jewish and marked a major victory for the reform and conservative movements. These liberal streams of Judaism, representing the vast majority of affiliated American Jews, have long been marginalized in Israel.

“If the state of Israel claims to be the nation-state of the Jewish world, then the state of Israel must recognize all denominations of Judaism and imbue them with equality and respect,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the reform movement in Israel and a Liberal Labor Party candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Israel’s powerful ultra-Orthodox establishment has had a virtual monopoly on religious matters for Israeli Jews, overseeing life-cycle rituals like weddings and burials and using its political influence to gain influence on issues like immigration.

Monday’s ruling undermined that power by saying the state must allow Jews who undergo conversions with liberal movements in Israel to receive citizenship.

“Jews who legally became a Reform or Conservative community during their stay in Israel must be recognized as Jews,” the court said in its majority decision. He said the ruling only applies to the question of citizenship and does not delve into religious matters.

Israel previously recognized the conversions of the liberal currents carried out abroad. This rule now applies to conversions within Israel.

The ruling does not solve the problems faced by people who qualify for citizenship under the so-called Law of Return but are not considered Jewish under religious law.

The Law of Return grants citizenship to anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent, while religious law requires that one have a Jewish mother. These different definitions have allowed tens of thousands of people, mostly from the Soviet Union, to emigrate to Israel, only to face discrimination when seeking religious services from the state.

Monday’s ruling only directly affects about 30 people a year, such as spouses of Israeli citizens, advocates say. But both supporters and opponents of the decision suggested there was a much deeper symbolism.

“He is saying that the Jewish world is one,” said Nicole Maor, the lawyer who represented the reform movement.

“Whoever becomes a Jew in a Reformed conversion or something similar is not a Jew,” said David Lau, one of Israel’s two leading rabbis. “No Supreme Court ruling in this or that way will change this fact.”

The ultra-Orthodox are key allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with great political power.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, condemned the decision and said it would lead to deep divisions in Israeli society.

“I promise to fix the law to ensure that only conversions under orthodox religious law are recognized in the state of Israel,” said Deri, whose ministry is in charge of immigration policies.

Netanyahu, who is running for re-election in Israel’s March 23 contest, re-posted a tweet from the Likud Party saying the decision should be left to “the people and the Knesset.”

Reform and conservative currents in Judaism have had an increasingly strained relationship with Netanyahu, who is at the top of the success of Israel’s vaccination campaign ahead of the March 23 elections. The Orthodox, including the ultra-Orthodox who flout Netanyahu’s COVID plan, form a key part of his supporter base.

Netanyahu’s tensions with unorthodox movements have risen in recent years. They stand out for their 2017 decision under heavy Orthodox pressure to cancel plans for an expanded mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall, the holiest prayer place in Judaism. Netanyahu’s close ties to his ultra-Orthodox political partners, as well as his strong alliance with former President Donald Trump, further alienated large segments of the American Jewish community. Most American Jews tend to hold liberal political views.

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beitenu, a popular party among former Soviet immigrants, welcomed the ruling. “Yisrael Beitenu will continue to fight religious coercion and preserve the character of the State of Israel as a liberal and Jewish Zionist state,” he wrote on Twitter.

Naftali Bennett, Yamina party leader and prime minister candidate, said the high court overreached and advocated a legislative solution.

“The recognition of the State of Israel by conversion will be determined by the democratically elected representatives of the people, and not by the jurists,” he tweeted. “The conversion procedures,” he added, must be “institutionalized in the law.”


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