Israeli courts have in the last three months unleashed a flood of
decisions affecting the delicate, and in recent years, much-battered status quo between
the Orthodox establishment and the secular state. With Israels election campaign
underway, these issues have now become bargaining chips in anticipation of the May 17
ballot for Prime Minister and Knesset.
The Conversion Issue
In recent years the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel have won a series of
court decisions chipping away at the state's policy of recognizing only Orthodox
conversions as making a person Jewish for civil Israeli purposes in particular, for
immigration under the Law of Return and for registration as a Jew at the Interior
Since the late 1980s, the High Court had ruled that those who converted to
Judaism under non-Orthodox auspices outside of Israel must be recognized by the state as
Jews. For example, an American who converted to Judaism in the U.S. under any rabbi
Orthodox, Reform or Conservative would be allowed to emigrate to Israel as a Jew
under the Law of Return and would be registered with the Interior Ministry as a Jew in the
However, according to these rulings, Israeli residents who converted to Judaism under
Reform or Conservative auspices in Israel or abroad would not be recognized by the state
as Jewish. Since that time the non-Orthodox movements have concentrated on gaining
recognition for these cases through the judiciary.
On December 30, Jerusalem District Court Judge Vardi Zeiler ruled that Reform and
Conservative converts must be registered by the Interior Ministry as Jews regardless of
where the conversion took place.
The case was brought by the Reform movement's Center for Religious Pluralism on behalf
of 23 Israeli citizen, some who converted to Judaism in Israel under Reform and
Conservative auspices, others who converted under Reform and Conservative auspices in
Britain, the United States, and South America. Since all the petitioners were Israeli
citizens, Zeiler stressed that his ruling only applied to the restricted question of
registration by the Interior Ministry and not to the issue of the Law of Return (meaning
the convert could be registered as Jewish by the state, but would not automatically become
a citizen under the Law of Return). Nevertheless, the case has sent a shockwave through
the religious and political establishment.
With the judiciary once again leading the way in liberalizing the State of
Israels criteria for recognizing Jews, the legislative arm attempted to strike back.
Orthodox parties in the Knesset pushed for the introduction of the conversion bill which
would codify the state's long-standing de facto practice of granting the Orthodox
Chief Rabbinate exclusive powers to decide on a conversion's validity.
The bill was initially introduced in 1997 by ultra-Orthodox parties with the support of
Prime Minister Netanyahus governing coalition, and engendered great controversy in
the Diaspora among Conservative and Reform Jews. To prevent both controversial legislation
and aggressive court challenges, Netanyahu created a committee under the chairmanship of
Yaakov Neeman charged with working out a compromise. In January 1997 the Neeman
Commission recommended establishing a conversion institute, where Orthodox, Reform and
Conservative teachers would train aspiring converts, but leaving the actual conversions to
Orthodox courts. The Chief Rabbinate never accepted this recommendation.
However, since the Jerusalem District Court decision in December, the Knesset Law
Committee has been unable to come to an agreement on how to move the bill forward. Some
wanted the bill to pass as is. Others want to incorporate the unsigned findings of the
In addition to the inevitable appeal of Zeiler's decision to the High Court, a second
case on non-Orthodox conversion is soon to be heard. In February 1995, a group of children
who were adopted abroad were converted at the Conservative movement's Kibbutz Hanaton. The
Interior Ministry refused to recognize them as Jews and for the last three and a half
years the case has been pending before the High Court. Several times High Court hearings
have been put off after the state argued that it was actively working on a solution to the
issue. That solution, though, has still not been found, and the court is set to hear the
case again on February 23. National Religious Party MK Hanan Porat, who chairs the Knesset
Law Committee, has asked the court to put off the hearing because of the upcoming
Next: Reform & Conservative Jews on Religious Councils