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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The Proclamation of Independence of May 14, 1948 declared the "establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel." As a democratic, nontheocratic state, Israel would, the Proclamation pledged, "...uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race or sex; (and would) guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture...."

But as a self-declared Jewish State, Israel has struggled with the question of what role the Jewish religion would play in the governing of the secular state, how that Judaism would be expressed, and even how Judaism would be defined. Today's controversy over religious pluralism in Israel is the most recent chapter of this struggle.

For Americans, who treasure respect for religious pluralism and a constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, the status of religion and state in Israel is complicated and seemingly unfathomable. In Israel, it is the secular state which determines crucial decisions on religious law through the secular parliament (Knesset) or in the secular courts. It is the secular state which until today only recognizes Orthodox practices in matters of conversion, marriage, divorce and burial for its Jewish citizens. It is the secular state which determines the religious law exercising authority over its citizens.

For the first 25 years of Israel's existence, religion and state debates focused primarily on state observance of the Jewish sabbath, dietary laws, and other related issues. While political battles on these issues persist, since the late 1960s efforts by secularists to express their beliefs, and by Reform and Conservative institutions to gain a foothold in Israeli society, have shifted the focus. In recent years, the most contentious debates have been how the Jewish state defines a "Jew" for purposes of immigration, citizenship and identification, how a Jewish citizen may marry, divorce and be buried in a manner sanctioned by the state, and how the state recognizes those who have become Jewish through conversion.

These debates have played out differently in the courts and in the legislature. When called upon to decide these issues, the judiciary has tended to rule in favor of a broad, and not necessarily halacha (Jewish law) based, definition of state-recognized Judaism. Often these notable Supreme Court rulings have not resulted from an ideological support for religious pluralism, but on legal technicalities, such as the legality of clerks requesting specific conversion certificates from applicants to the Israeli population registry. Nevertheless, it is through the court challenges that secularists, and the Reform and Conservative movements, have managed to chip away at Orthodox control over state-recognized Judaism in Israel.

Meanwhile, legislation passed in the Knesset has tended to codify precise, halachic, religious definitions and practices for the State. It is the Orthodox parties in the Knesset, through their involvement in government coalitions, who have used the legislative process to legally fortify the long-standing Orthodox religious practices of the State.

The current controversy surrounding pending Knesset legislation barring non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism in Israel is only the most recent attempt to determine by pre-state custom, legislation, judicial decision, or political compromise the definition and expression of Jewishness and Judaism in the Jewish State. Five decades later it is this process which continues to shape religion and state in Israel.


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