Israel: Religion and the Secular State
January 27, 1999

The Conversion Issue
Reform & Conservative Jews on Religious Councils
Opening Kibbutz Stores on the Sabbath
Drafting Yeshiva Students
Political Implications

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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 Israel’s 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 Ministry.

Since the late 1980’s, 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 population registry.

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 Israel’s 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 Netanyahu’s 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 Ne’eman 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 Neeman Commission.

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 elections.

Next: Reform & Conservative Jews on Religious Councils

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