Rabbinic Ruling on Jewish Identity Doesn't Pass Muster at Interior Ministry

Although she is Jewish, Yehudit Weizman, an immigrant from Hungary, and her three children are defined as people with 'no religion.'

Is a person who is Jewish according to Jewish law necessarily considered Jewish by the State of Israel? The Interior Ministry has for years been saying no.

The Population Registry refuses to recognize as Jews people who do not enter the country as Jews, even when a recognized Israeli rabbinic court declares that person Jewish.

weizman - Abdalla Shama  - July 20 2011
Abdalla Shama

The Interior Ministry recognizes people as Jewish if they have certificates issued by rabbis of all denominations abroad. But the moment those people are in Israel, even Orthodox documentation will not help.

One person caught in this trap is Yehudit Weizman, an immigrant from Hungary who grew up Jewish, married a Jewish Israeli in a Jewish ceremony, and was recognized as Jewish according to halakha (Jewish law ) by a rabbinic court in Tiberias to boot. But the Interior Ministry defines her and her three children as people with "no religion."

For the Interior Ministry, Weizman is a Christian, because her maternal grandmother converted to Christianity during World War II. She will only be registered as Jewish on her identity card, with all the concomitant legal implications, if she converts, the Interior Ministry told her. Even ultra-Orthodox rabbis, including those working for the state, have not made such a demand.

After such cases reached the High Court of Justice, the Interior Ministry agreed to a compromise under which it would recognize certain petitioners as Jews, although the court refused to set rules on the matter.

But relief may be on the way in the form of a bill, initiated by Tzohar, a group of moderate Orthodox rabbis. The bill is also supported by MKs from various backgrounds, including Knesset Interior Committee chairman MK David Azoulay (Shas ).

The bill would require the interior minister to recognize rulings by rabbinic courts acknowledging people as Jewish.

Tzohar says some 4,000 Israelis seek such recognition from rabbinic courts every year under a procedure known as "clarification of Judaism," mainly so they can be married in a Jewish ceremony.

The current law allows only an "authorized court or tribunal" to invalidate information given to the Interior Ministry. The proposed bill would expand the court's powers.

Weizman, 32, met her husband in Hungary in 1997 and five years later came to live in Israel, where they were married in a Jewish ceremony. The couple lived in the United States for a while, and in 2006 came back to Israel. Weizman was registered in the Interior Ministry as a tourist. They now live in Kfar Tavor in the north. Weizman had her religion "clarified" with the help of Tzohar, and the rabbinic court was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was Jewish.

But the Interior Ministry was not. The process went on for years, and the Interior Ministry eventually told her that in order to be recognized as Jewish in the Population Registry, she would have to convert.

Weizman has two brothers in Hungary who want to move to Israel. One is ultra-Orthodox and is about to be ordained a rabbi. Like her, her two brothers are recognized as Jews by rabbis, but not by the Interior Ministry.

Rabbi Uriel Ganzel, who is working on the legislation for Tzohar, said: "I haven't yet met a person who doesn't think I'm lying when I tell them such stories."

Weizman said: "What broke me is when they refused to register my children as Jews. If that had happened in Hungary I wouldn't have cared. But here, in the Jewish state, it's terrible, it hurts."

Only now that the bill has passed the ministerial committee on legislation, does Weizman allow herself to be cautiously optimistic. "For five years I have been treated like I'm not Jewish. I'm glad there are people who want to help," she said.

An unusual constellation of lawmakers have signed off on the bill: They include, in addition to Shas MK Azoulay, Eitan Cabel (Labor ), Fania Kirshenbaum (Yisrael Beiteinu ) and Zvulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi ).

"This bill shows that when Jewishness is presented properly, we can reach impressive levels of cooperation," Ganzel said.