Court Rules Judaism, Not Place of Birth, Is Grounds for Israeli Citizenship

Israeli court denies petition by anti-coercion activist to be recognized as Israeli without connection to Judaism, says citizenship is solely determined by law of return.

Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel
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Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel

The Haifa District Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal submitted by Professor Uzzi Ornan, who sought to compel Israel's Interior Ministry to recognize his citizenship based on the fact that he was born in Israel, rather than on the grounds that he was Jewish.

Ornan, a linguist and member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, who is also the founder of the League against Religious Coercion in Israel, petitioned the Interior Ministry in 2010 to recognize him as an Israeli, not on grounds of being Jewish but because he was born in Israel.

In his ruling on Tuesday, Judge Daniel Fisch said that it was without a doubt that the petitioner, Prof Uzzi Ornan, was born to a Jewish mother, and was therefore Jewish, which the law of return states as the source of his citizenship.

"While the legislator's definition of 'Jew' was only added to the Law of Return in 1970," Fisch wrote, "the turn to the accepted Jewish halakhaic law is not a novelty, and an overview of the ruling preceding the amendment shows that any time that a man's Judaism needs to be determined, that source has not been overlooked."

The judge also referred Ornan to two rulings from 1962 and 1968, prior to the 1970 amendment that stipulated that "a Jew is anyone born to a Jewish mother or that has converted and is not of another religion."

Speaking to Haaretz, Ornan said that, while he was very disappointed by the ruling, he intended to continue and appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

"A judge appeals to Jewish law, and the ruling shows that Israel is a Jewish community and not a civilian state," Ornan added.

In response to the petition, the State Prosecutor's Office, responding in the Interior Ministry's name, said, "Ornan is allowed to hold the opinion that the laws in question are racist legislation, but he cannot impose his personal opinion on the Authority and force it to act against the letter of the law."

The State Prosecutor's Office rejected Ornan's claim that he is "of another religion" and thus exempt from being classified as a Jew according to the Law of Return. "The fact that the petitioner is listed in the Population Registry according to his declaration as a person with no religion does not affect his being a Jew according to halachic test determined in the Law of Return," the state replied.

"Accepting the petitioner's interpretation would bring about a far-reaching and unacceptable result that the sons of Jewish mothers living abroad who declare to population registries abroad or in other ways that they have no religion, would be denied the right to make aliyah to Israel."

Ornan, 89, was born and grew up in Jerusalem, and lives today in the Galilee village Nofit. During the British Mandate, he fought in the Etzel and in 1944 was exiled to Eritrea after being informed on to the British.

When he returned to Israel in 1948, he registered in the country's first census and insisted that he not be listed as a Jew. In the religion box, he wrote that he has no religion and in the "nationality" box, he wrote "Hebrew." In those days, the Interior Ministry tended to accept what people wrote without asking too many questions.

"In '48, it wasn't an issue," said Ornan. "The general atmosphere was that this is a free and democratic country. There was force then too, but nobody tried to change my 'nationality' to Jew."

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