The Conversion Crisis:
The Current Debate on Religion, State and Conversion in Israel

Pre-State Jewish Life
Creation of the State of Israel
Testing the Principals
The Conversion Crisis
1995 - Present
Future Challenges

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Creation of the State of Israel

With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jewish dimension of the Jewish State became a pressing, practical matter. From the beginning, there were tensions between those who advocated a strict division between religion and state, those who believed halachic Judaism should be the guiding principle of the state and those who sought a middle ground.

Also from the beginning, many of these crucial state-building decisions were made out of political expediency, with prime ministers from

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Ben Gurion decided to maintain the "status quo" with regard to religious jurisdiction
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David Ben Gurion on acceding to the demands of the religious parties in their ruling coalitions in return for political support on other issues.

Partially out of a desire to formalize the Jewish character of the state and partially out of political considerations, Prime Minister Ben Gurion decided to maintain the status quo with regard to religious jurisdiction, meaning that matters of personal status would continue to be directed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Jewish marriage, divorce and other issues continued to be performed according to strict Jewish law. In 1953, an act of Knesset placed all Jews in Israel under the jurisdiction of the rabbinic court for issues of personal status including Jews who are not citizens of Israel but who seek to marry or divorce in Israel. Christian and Muslim religious councils or courts also continued to determine issues of personal status based on their own religious law.

In later years, Ben Gurion explained his decision:

Any government leader must prescribe for himself priorities, must decide on first things first...(W)here there was agreement on what was urgent to me, I was prepared to make concessions on what was urgent to others...When I wanted to introduce national service conscription, the religious parties said they would of course support it but they insisted that all army kitchens be kosher. Kosher kitchens to them were of paramount importance; to me they were of subsidiary interest. It was a price I was prepared to pay for their full-fledged support on a vital defense measure...In the same way I agreed not to change the status quo on religious authority for matters of personal status. I know it was hard on some individuals. But I felt, again in the national interest, that it was wise the comparatively small price of religious status quo." (Cited in Howard M. Sachar, A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, reprinted with permission.)

The new state also established a number of principles for the public observance of Jewish law. On the Jewish sabbath, stores, offices, and public transportation were shut down. All food served by government institutions, including the military, abided by the Jewish dietary laws. A Ministry of Religion was established with departments for Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze affairs. The ministry oversaw and subsidized places of worship. The department for Jewish affairs, which was the largest, was charged with building synagogues and yeshivas, providing religious services for new immigrants, the religious courts and supervising dietary laws.

In addition to submitting to the Rabbinic courts for personal status issues, the secular state expected Israeli Jews to designate themselves as "Jews" for state bureaucratic purposes, specifically for immigration and identification. According to the 1950 Law of Return, "every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh" (immigrant) and be granted automatic Israeli citizenship. Potential immigrants, therefore, had to attest to their Jewishness. The Law of Return did not define "Jew," a vagueness that would lead to contentious legislation and court rulings. Identity cards for citizens of the State of Israel were issued by the Ministry of the Interior, with two categories: "religion" and "nationality." Again, Jewish citizens of Israel were expected to attest to their Jewishness, and list "Jew" as both their religion and nationality. And again, the definition of a "Jew" by religion and nationality would be further defined by legislation and the courts.


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