Israel's Top Court Agrees to Postpone Ruling on Conversion Changes for Six Months

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A candidate for conversion sits before a special conversion court in Jerusalem.
A candidate for conversion sits before a special conversion court in Jerusalem.Credit: Haaretz

The High Court of Justice agreed on Tuesday to a request by the government to postpone a ruling on a petition demanding that the state grant full recognition to conversions performed in Israel by the Reform and Conservative movements. 

In exchange for this consent, the government had agreed to postpone discussion of a controversial bill that would deny recognition of any conversions performed in Israel outside the Orthodox state-sanctioned system.  Last week, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation had voted to advance this bill. But in response to an outcry from Diaspora Jewry, the government agreed over the weekend to hold off, providing that the High Court also agreed to postpone ruling on the petition. 

If passed into law, the bill would deny citizenship under the Law of Return to Jews converted in Israel by Conservative, Reform or privately run Orthodox rabbinical courts.  

Submitted to the ministerial committee by Interior Minister Arye Dery, the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, the bill was meant to circumvent a High Court of Justice ruling from March 2016 ordering the state to recognize conversions performed by private Orthodox conversion courts in Israel. In the wake of that ruling, the Reform and Conservative movements petitioned the court to require their conversions be recognized as well.

The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel maintain that the new bill is unlawful since the Law of Return applies to all individuals who have converted in recognized Jewish communities and does not distinguish between conversions performed in Israel and those performed abroad or between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform conversions. The Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent as well as to converts.

Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver, the representative of Yisrael Beiteinu on the ministerial committee, was the only member to vote against the bill. After the vote, her party appealed the decision.

Yisrael Beiteinu enjoys widespread support among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Around 350,000 such immigrants are not recognized as Jewish in Israel, according to religious law. If the bill is passed, it means their only option for a state-recognized conversion would be the religious courts operated by the Chief Rabbinate, which tend to be stricter than the private conversion courts.

In its decision Tuesday, the High Court of Justice said it would not hold any further hearings on the petition submitted by the non-Orthodox movements.

Responding to the announcement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said: “The many forces in the Jewish world that took a stand against the conversion bill will not allow the government to give the rabbinical establishment a monopoly on the entrance gates to the Jewish people.” 

He said that over the next six months, the non-Orthodox movements would meet with the government in an attempt convince its representative they had no intention of taking advantage of existing conversion regulations. 

“If these discussions do not bear fruit,” he warned, “we will go back to the Supreme Court and demand justice and equality to all converts and all the communities in the Jewish people.”

On Monday, Dery charged that Reform movement leaders were opposed to the new conversion bill because it would block their attempts to perform mass conversions of asylum seekers in Israel.