- Non-Orthodox Conversions in Israel:
-- The Goldstein Case
- The Conversion Bill
- The Ne'eman Committee
- The 'Technical' Proposal
Non-Orthodox Conversions in Israel:
-- The Goldstein Case:
The precursor to today's "conversion crisis" was a November 1995 Supreme Court
decision in the Goldstein case on recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in
Israel. Hava (or Eliyani or Elaine) Goldstein, a native of Brazil, emigrated to Israel in
1990 and converted to Judaism under Reform auspices in Israel a year later. She married a
Jewish, Brazilian-born Israeli in a civil ceremony outside Israel. Goldstein applied for
Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return and sought to register as a Jew with the
Ministry of Interior. Since Goldstein could not produce a conversion certificate from the
Rabbinate, her request for registration was denied. The Court decided that the Interior
Ministry's request for a conversion certificate from the Rabbinate had no basis in Israeli
law. The Ministry of Interior was given six months to register Goldstein as a Jew.
"I do not believe that this issue can be
resolved through litigation or legislation. We would rather have neither. What we need is
an agreement among religious leaders
of all the parties involved...."
The Goldstein decision was hailed by Reform and Conservative leaders as de facto
official state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel.
Recognizing the implications of their decision, the justices refused to comment on the
validity of non-Orthodox conversions or their legitimacy in Israel. Noting that previous
Supreme Court decisions (most notably "Miller") had clarified the matter of
conversions performed outside of Israel and other related issues, the Court directed the
Knesset to clarify the guidelines for conversions performed in Israel. Should the Knesset
fail to establish such guidelines, specifically regarding state recognition of
non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel, the responsibility would fall to the Court
in future cases.
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The Conversion Bill:
Almost immediately, political forces mobilized to initiate legislation further clarifying
state-recognized conversions performed in Israel. The Reform and Conservative leadership
looked to the Labor government under Shimon Peres to promote legislation recognizing
non-Orthodox conversions in Israel. However, these hopes were soon disappointed when
Interior Minister Haim Ramon told a delegation of American Reform rabbis that he would not
support the registration of Goldstein as a Jew both as a matter of principle and of
political survival. In turn, the Orthodox parties sought to introduce legislation which
would codify the State of Israel's long-standing, de facto practice of nonrecognition of
non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. Orthodox leaders in Israel expressed the
fear that were such legislation not passed, the Conservative and Reform movements would
gain recognition for their conversions performed in Israel through the judiciary.
Following the May 1996 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a coalition
agreement with the National Religious Party and Shas in which the new Likud government
agreed "the law of conversion shall be changed so that conversions to Judaism in
Israel will be recognized only if authorized by the Chief Rabbinate." News of the
agreement was greeted with great concern in the Diaspora, with the Reform and Conservative
movements vowing to fight any legislative move that would take away the recognition for
conversions performed under their auspices which they had earned in the courts. In
response, Prime Minister Netanyahu pledged that any legislation would only deny state
recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. Non-Orthodox conversions
performed outside of Israel would continue to be recognized by the State of Israel
according to the Law of Return and the "Miller precedent."
The initial bill proposed by Shas in October 1996 went far beyond the one detailed in
the coalition agreement. Instead the bill banned state recognition of non-Orthodox
conversions performed both in Israel and the Diaspora, stating, "there shall be no
legal validity whatsoever to a conversion unless it receives the approval of the highest
religious court in Israel of the religion to which the aforementioned wishes to
join." In March 1997, the Cabinet formally approved a more limited legislation,
mirroring that of the coalition agreement, denying state recognition to non-Orthodox
conversions performed in Israel only. This legislation passed its first reading in April.
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The Ne'eman Committee:
As the Knesset prepared for the bill's second and third reading in June, the government
sought a compromise setting guidelines for non-Orthodox conversions whereby (ideally)
there would be no need for Orthodox parties to pursue the legislation while the Reform and
Conservative movements would have no need to pursue judicial challenges.
Prime Minister Netanyahu created a committee chaired by Yaakov Ne'eman, a respected
lawyer (who was appointed Finance Minister one month later), bringing together Orthodox,
Reform and Conservative representatives to hammer out a solution. The Reform and
Conservative movements agreed to temporarily suspend their court cases pending the
recommendations of the Ne'eman Committee. (At this time, a number of cases were pending
before the Supreme Court including a case petitioning for state recognition of children
from the former Soviet Union who were adopted by nonreligious Israeli Jews, denied
Orthodox conversions, were converted to Judaism under Conservative auspices in Israel and
thus were denied state recognition as Jews, as well as a petition for the inclusion of
Reform and Conservative representatives on local religious councils in Tel Aviv,
Jerusalem, Haifa and Kirat Tivon. Reform and Conservative movements agreed to suspend this
judicial action if the Orthodox parties agreed to suspend action on a bill legislating the
exclusion of Reform and Conservative representatives from serving on local religious
councils.) Heralding the historic mission of the Ne'eman Committee, Prime Minister
Netanyahu declared, "I do not believe that this issue can be resolved through
litigation or legislation. We would rather have neither. What we need is an agreement
among religious leaders of all the parties involved...."
Its deadline extended three times, the Ne'eman Committee met more than fifty times over
the next seven months, and submitted its report to the Prime Minister in late January
1997. The Ne'eman Committee set as its goal a comprehensive solution to the matter of
non-Orthodox conversions in Israel which would comply with Jewish law. Ne'eman himself has
stated that he hopes this solution will enable the approximately 200,000 non-Jewish
immigrants from the former Soviet Union living in Israel to convert to Judaism if they so
wish. According to press reports, the preamble of the proposal declares, "It is
agreed by all parties that there must be a single, uniform, official conversion procedure
that will be conducted in accordance with Jewish law and will be recognized by all
segments of the Jewish people....The composition of the commission, which includes
representatives of both the Reform and Conservative movements, reflects a desire for
cooperation among all three major movements in Judaism and for Jewish unity."
The Committee proposed to create "conversion institutes," to prepare
potential converts for conversion. The institutes would be sponsored by the Jewish Agency,
and operated jointly by the three denominations. Aspiring converts would attend classes at
the institutes but the actual conversion would be performed under the auspices of the
Chief Rabbinate, according to Orthodox guidelines. With the establishment of these
institutes, the Reform and Conservative movements would agree not to perform conversions
outside the framework of the institutes.
The agreement brings benefits to all the involved parties. Under this proposal, every
convert to Judaism in Israel would enjoy both state and Rabbinate recognition as a Jew.
This convert would be free to officially immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return (even
if the conversion was performed in Israel), to register with the Ministry of Interior as a
Jew, marry, divorce and be buried in Israel as a Jew. The acceptance of this proposal
would also mark the first time the State of Israel and the Rabbinate would officially
recognize the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel in matters of personal status.
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The 'Technical' Proposal:
Fearing that the Ne'eman Committee compromise would be rejected by the Rabbinate and the
Ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg convened a
meeting of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives to work out an interim
measure to prevent the reintroduction of the conversion bill in the Knesset. Over the
course of a weekend the group arrived at a stop-gap measure meant to circumvent Orthodox
and non-Orthodox sensitivities without mandating comprehensive solution.
Burg's plan calls for a replacement of the word "Jew" (in Hebrew
"yehudi/a") in the identity cards of Israeli Jews, with the letter
"yud" ("j"). Jews-from-birth would have the letter "yud"
with the individual's date-of-birth. Jews-from-conversion, regardless of the type of
conversion, would have the letter "yud" with the date of the individual's
conversion stamped in their identity card.
This ambiguity pleases the Reform and Conservative movements by enabling individuals
who convert under their auspices in Israel to receive identity cards nearly identical to
those of other Israeli Jews.
Ultra-Orthodox parties would be satisfied since the non-Orthodox convert would not be
designated as "Jew" ("Yehudi/a") but only as the letter
"yud" ("j") which could stand for the word "Jew," or for the
word Israeli ("Yisraeli/a"), or for any other word beginning with the letter
"yud." Moreover, ultra-Orthodoxy sees no religious significance in the symbols
of modern Israeli nationhood, with which it often finds itself in conflict, and thus has
no problem with labeling converts as a separate designation on their identity cards.
In general, the "nationalist-Zionist" camp does not support this plan. For
religious Zionists, the national and religious are intertwined. Designating converts on
identity cards violates this ideology by creating different standards and classes for
nationality and religion.
There are, however, many flaws to the plan. Individuals converting to Judaism under
non-Orthodox auspices in Israel will still not be recognized as Jews by the Rabbinate, and
thus will be barred from marrying, divorcing or being buried as Jews in Israel. Critics
point out that the plan would officially label converts to Judaism, thus distinguishing
them from other Israeli Jews and effectively creating two official categories of Jews.
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