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A petition was filed in the High Court of Justice yesterday against a ruling by the Rabbinical Court of Appeals that nullified thousands of conversions performed by the state-sponsored Conversion Authority, headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, since 1999.

The ruling, issued a few weeks ago, accused Druckman of forging conversions. Last week, the Prime Minister's Office fired Druckman from his post as head of the Conversion Authority.

The petition, filed by attorneys Aviad Hacohen and Susan Weiss on behalf of a woman whose conversion to Judaism was revoked by the ruling, accused the rabbinical courts and the Chief Rabbinate of running "a state within a state." It was joined by several nonprofit organizations, mostly religious Zionist groups, including WIZO, Emunah, the Center for Women's Justice, Ne'emanei Torah v'Avoda and Mavoi Satum ("Dead End"), an organization that helps women whose husbands refuse to divorce them).

The case began when a woman whom Druckman converted 15 years ago sought a divorce. The Ashdod Rabbinical Court ruled that the woman could not be considered Jewish, since she had never practiced religious Judaism. A Rabbinical Court of Appeals panel headed by the staunchly conservative Rabbi Avraham Sherman upheld that ruling, and then expanded it to a broader indictment of all conversions performed by Druckman.

The petition accused the judges of both the Ashdod Rabbinical Court and the Rabbinical Court of Appeals of having exceeded their authority by nullifying a conversion performed by an authorized court. It said the rabbinical courts thereby violated the rules of natural justice and the principles of human dignity and liberty, and therefore asked the High Court to overturn the ruling.

It also asked the court to forbid the rabbinate - which is the only body in Israel authorized to marry Jews - to register the woman, or anyone else who underwent a legal conversion in Israel, as being unable to marry a Jew. The Rabbinical Court of Appeals has instructed rabbinical marriage registrars to add any convert whom they suspect of not maintaining a religious way of life to the list of people forbidden to marry Jews.

Though the Rabbinical Court of Appeals is the highest religious court, its rulings may be overturned by the High Court of Justice.

The petition quoted extensively from both rabbinical court rulings. For instance, it noted, Ashdod Rabbinical Court Judge Rabbi Avraham Atiya wrote that Druckman was "rotten to the core," termed him and his conversion court "heretic" and "criminal" and accused him of trying to effect "a wholesale liquidation of the sanctity and lineage of the nation of Israel."

"Incredible, but this is how a rabbinical court judge in Israel writes in documents bearing the State of Israel's official insignia," the petitioners wrote.

Also yesterday, hundreds of people attended two demonstrations: one outside the Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, and one near the Or Etzion Yeshiva south of Kiryat Malachi, which Druckman heads.

The religious Zionist rabbis and academics who demonstrated in Jerusalem called for setting up alternative rabbinical courts to the state-run ones and performing conversions in them.

"Enough with the ultra-Orthodox hegemony," said Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, formerly a Meimad MK and today head of the Religious Kibbutz Yeshiva. "We need another leadership, a moral one with national responsibility."

The Rabbinical Court of Appeals apparently voided Druckman's conversions over the fierce objections of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.