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Battered by spiralling violence, bent under the fallout of a failing economy, Israel faced yet another powerful challenge to its social fabric Wednesday, as the Supreme Court reignited the fierce, bone-deep debate over Who is a Jew, granting for the first time formal recognition to Reform and Conservative conversions performed in the Jewish state.

By a 9-2 vote, the court ruled that persons who had undergone non-Jewish conversions whether in Israel or abroad were entitled to be registered as Jews in the state identity card rubric which reads "nationality."

Although the court steered clear of official definitions of Jewishness for the purpose of marriage, citizenship, and immigrant rights, the decision was seen as a dangerous precedent by Orthodox religious authorities, who since the founding of the state have held an effective monopoly over decisions pertaining to legal definitions of membership in the Jewish people.

The court also broke from an unstated practice by public officials of refraining from stoking the flames of religious-secular ire during times of military strife.

Perhaps mindful of the volatility of the decision, the court at the same time unanimously threw out a challenge by leftists who sought to quash the longstanding draft exemptions provided ultra-Orthodox students allowed to study in yeshivas rather than serve in the Israeli military. But the wrath of religious leaders was little assuaged by the deferment ruling that went in their favor.

Minutes after the conversion ruling was announced early Wednesday, Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau slammed the decree, saying that it would not only deepen the rifts already plaguing the society, it would also prove detrimental to the Reform and Conservative converts that it was designed to aid.

"There will be converts who are registered as Jews according to Jewish law and tradition, then there will be other converts registered as Jews only according to the High Court's ruling today, and they will be bandied about in a great storm.

"Their identity cards will now be worthless," Lau continued. "Tomorrow, if they want to register to get married, the day after if they go to the Immigration Ministry to ask for their basket of benefits or citizenship, they'll be told 'No, you're only thought of as a Jew on the population rolls, while as far as everything else goes, you remain in your goyishness."

Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union could be directly affected by the conversion ruling, undergoing Reform and Conservative conversions to be recognized on the Interior Ministry's official population rolls as Jews.

Attorneys for the converts had argued that historically, information appearing on the Interior Ministry's population registry - the data base from which the contents of identity cards are drawn - was based on personal details supplied by the bearers of the cards, and was not subject to review or revision by religious or other authorities.

Secular leftists and non-Orthodox religious leaders hailed the decision as a landmark. Meretz lawmaker Ran Cohen said, "The High Court gave us that which was already obvious - the fact that a Jew that who is converted and registered anywhere in the world as a Jew, Reform or Conservative, will be registered in Israel as well. This is simply normalization of the Jews, and normalization of the state of Israel."

Ultra-Orthodox politicians, meanwhile, were unrestrained in their rage over the decision, taking the court to task for having, in their view, meddled in an area far beyond their jurisdiction and understanding. United Torah Judaism's Moshe Gafni decried what he foresaw as the prospect of "wholesale conversions."

"The significance of this matter is one of two options: either the Knesset will pass a law barring the High Court, which doesn't have a clue in this matter, from doing whatever it wishes on these issues, or we will forced to assemble record books of family trees, something that will tear the people to pieces."

The ruling was not the courts baptism of fire on the hair-trigger issue of recognizing non-Orthodox conversion. In 1986, the High Court ordered officials to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions performed overseas. Then, seven years ago, note Ha'aretz correspondents Moshe Reinfeld and Anshel Pfeffer, the court went further, ruling that the Orthodox monopoly on conversions was illegal, but refraining from explicitly ordering the state to accept non-Orthodox conversions. "In practice," they add, "no government has ever done so."

"In ensuing years, the court repeatedly postponed hearings on petitions by some 50 people who demanded that the state register them as Jewish following local non-Orthodox conversions, while successive governments tried, yet failed, to broker a compromise that could be enacted into legislation."

The matter came to a head in 1998, when the Jerusalem District Court ruled that the state must recognize such conversions, calling it absurd for non-Orthodox conversions to be valid when performed overseas, but not when performed locally, Reinfeld and Pfeffer write in Wednesday's print edition. "The state appealed this decision, and it is this appeal on which the court ruled."

The next move appeared to be up to Interior Minister Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas, who was quick off the mark in blasting the ruling as "horrible, dangerous, most grievous, as well as anti-democratic."

Yishai, whose party has long feuded with Israel's judicial branch over such issues as the conviction of Yishai's predecessor Aryeh Deri for a range corruption offenses, said the High Court had rendered its decision on behalf of "the tiniest of minorities, on the fringes of the very fringe of the margins of Israeli society."

The interior minister added that "A small fringe group, the Reform, cannot run the country here, and the High Court's decision is one that will lead to assimilation and the destruction of the Jewish people."

Yishai said he could not bring himself "to register a non-Jew as a Jew." He pledged to fight the decision with new Knesset legislation aimed at neutralizing the court's stance.

As one option in the interim, Yishai said, if his office registers a Reform convert as a Jew, his clerks "add next to this the word 'Reform,' so that the whole Jewish people will know that he is Reform. If he's so proud of being a Reform Jew, let's let him stay one."