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Explosive Conversion Verdict Stirs Sleepy Israeli Election Cycle
Israel's Supreme Court meets in session on May 4, 2020 in Jerusalem. The court ruled on March 1 that the government must award citizenship to a handful of residents who converted to Judaism through non-Orthodox institutions while living in Israel. (Abir Sultan/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Explosive Conversion Verdict Stirs Sleepy Israeli Election Cycle

Supreme Court recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel puts delicate issue center stage

Israel’s Supreme Court on Monday issued a landmark ruling, ordering the government to award citizenship to a handful of residents who converted to Judaism through non-Orthodox institutions while living in Israel.

The case, which made its way through the justice system for more than 15 years, quickly and predictably turned into a hot topic for lawmakers across the political spectrum on Monday evening, and is expected to be featured prominently by both liberal and religious parties in the few weeks remaining until the March 23 elections.

In past rulings, the Supreme Court forced Jerusalem’s government to recognize as citizens those who came to Israel after converting to Judaism through the Reform or Conservative movements abroad.

The court also recently authorized residents living in Israel, who had undergone private Orthodox conversion in the country – as opposed to through the state-supervised process – to receive citizenship.

Monday’s decision, given after a decade and a half of government procrastination, extended this relief to those who converted through non-Orthodox routes in Israel.

Under the nation’s Law of Return, any person who was born to a Jewish mother, who has a Jewish father or grandfather, or themselves converted to Judaism, is entitled to Israeli citizenship. That conversion clause, according to the justices’ interpretation, will now apply to Reform and Conservative converts in Israel as well as Orthodox ones.

“It’s really a trivial step for the court, since it recognized similar precedents in the past,” Dr. Shuki Friedman, director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Media Line.

“This isn’t groundbreaking, to be honest, it’s more symbolic than anything else. The main point here is the formal recognition of other streams of Judaism. The ultra-Orthodox are waging an all-out war against legitimizing anything that isn’t their form of Judaism,” Friedman said.

The judgment has already become a major point of contention in Israel’s current election campaign and was slammed by religious lawmakers, who vowed to overturn it via a bill in the next parliamentary session.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who heads the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, panned the court’s decision and promised to pass a law “immediately following the elections,” cementing the Orthodox institutions as the only legally recognized method of conversion.

His partners in the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party called the verdict a “disaster for the term ‘Jewish State.’ For generations, the Jewish people recognized their faith and religion without forgeries and imitations.”

The justices’ “activism,” the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers warned, “threatens to tear us from within.”

This isn’t groundbreaking, to be honest, it’s more symbolic than anything else. The main point here is the formal recognition of other streams of Judaism. The ultra-Orthodox are waging an all-out war against legitimizing anything that isn’t their form of Judaism

Yet, Chief Justice Esther Hayut in her ruling insisted the court had afforded parliament more than enough time to pass a coherent bill regulating the nation’s conversion process.

“Once it was made clear that the chances of reaching an agreed settlement of the issue were non-existent, and that a legislative process was also not on the horizon, a verdict is inevitable,” Hayut wrote in the decision.

“That certainly does not bar the Knesset from pouring additional or different content into the conversion concept, as it sees fit,” she added.

Gilad Kariv, No. 4 on the Labor Party’s candidates list for parliament and the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, was one of the case’s lead plaintiffs.

Kariv welcomed the ruling, saying it “protected Israel’s basic principles as the land of the entire Jewish people, and as a democratic country committed to its citizens’ religious freedoms.”

Kariv’s fellow petitioner, Nicole Maor, who is the director of Israel Religious Action’s Legal Aid Center for Olim (Jewish immigrants), vowed to oppose any legislative attempt by the movement’s political rivals that will endanger Monday’s ruling.

“This is crucial mainly for Israel’s relations with the Jewish Diaspora, it tells them everyone is welcome here,” Maor told The Media Line.

“Cursing us isn’t new, the threats to overturn this accomplishment by overriding bills isn’t new. But the harm that will be done to Israel’s connection with our fellow Jews abroad, if this is changed, will be so significant that I don’t believe any government will go down that road,” she said.

As for the how the Reform or Conservative conversion processes differ from the Orthodox one, Maor explains that they are actually quite similar.

“They both take about a year and include studying Judaism, committing to be a part of an established Jewish community, praying in synagogue, etc. The difference is in the subjects studied,” she said.

This is crucial mainly for Israel’s relations with the Jewish Diaspora, it tells them everyone is welcome here

Instead of following the strict Orthodox method that “doesn’t recognize any advancements in Judaism over the years,” she explained, the Reform movement’s converts learn that the religion is “a living tree, which progresses and includes women, and equality and different views. It’s a pluralistic approach that is the antithesis to Orthodoxy.”

With exactly three weeks left until Israelis go to the polls for the fourth time in two years, Monday’s events may prove decisive in swaying the still many undecided voters.

“It’s clear this will stay on the public agenda,” Friedman said. “The separation of religion and state, as well as the Supreme Court’s perceived activism” which usually riles the conservative, right-wing vote, could now take center stage.

 

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