Israel’s Top Court Could Rule Within Weeks on Recognition of non-Orthodox Conversions

Currently, residents of Israel who convert through local branches of non-Orthodox movements are ineligible for citizenship under the Law of Return and can face deportation

Judy Maltz
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American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's old city, February 25, 2016.
American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's old city, February 25, 2016.Credit: Jordyn Rozensky
Judy Maltz

Israel’s Supreme Court could rule in the next few weeks, and even days, on whether conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel will be recognized by the state. 

Its ruling would mark the culmination of a 15-year battle waged by the non-Orthodox movements against the state for discriminating against Jews of choice who have been converted by their rabbis. 

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Currently, residents of Israel who choose to convert through the local branches of the non-Orthodox movements are not eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. That means that they face the risk of deportation if their visas expire. By contrast, residents of Israel who convert through Orthodox rabbis are entitled to citizenship under the Law of Return.

Any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse is eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. So is any Jew of choice, provided that he or she was converted in an established Jewish community outside Israel. That includes those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis.

This has created two separate classes of non-Orthodox converts: those converted outside Israel, who are eligible for citizenship, and those converted in Israel, who are not.

This week, the state asked the Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, to delay ruling on the matter on the grounds that it had not found the time to formulate an alternative proposal for reforming the national conversion system. It asked for an extension until November 30. 

The petitioners, the Reform and Conservative movements, responded that they are opposed to any further extensions, noting that the case has dragged on far too long. The movements are being represented in court by the Israel Religious Action Center – the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country.

If the High Court decides in favor of the petitioners, a final ruling could be handed down very shortly – as soon as the next few days or weeks. It would have an immediate impact on several dozen non-Orthodox converts, whose visas have expired and have been granted approval to remain in Israel temporarily and receive social benefits until there is a ruling in the case.

Should the High Court rule against the petitioners, it is likely to deepen the growing rifts between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, as millions of Jews around the world belong to the Reform and Conservative movements.

Last month, Interior Minister Arye Dery asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for permission to move forward with legislation that would recognize only state-sanctioned Orthodox conversions overseen by the Chief Rabbinate. Even Orthodox conversions performed by private rabbinical courts would be outlawed under such legislation.

The High Court was supposed to have issued its ruling in the petition submitted by the non-Orthodox movements in December. At the request of the state, it agreed to postpone the decision for six months. The state had requested this extension on the grounds that elections were several months away, and the acting government was not in a position to introduce major changes into the conversion system. The request for an extension was approved despite objections by the Reform and Conservative movements.

Two years ago, Moshe Nissim, a former Israeli justice minister and long-standing Likud lawmaker, presented the government with a program aimed at overhauling the conversion system. Drafted at the request of Netanyahu, it called for the creation of a state-run authority, outside the auspices of the Rabbinate, that would oversee all conversions in Israel.

All conversions performed by this new authority would abide by Orthodox rules. Under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, who were and remain partners in the government, the program was effectively shelved. The ultra-Orthodox parties were fiercely opposed to stripping the Rabbinate of its authorities.

The Nissim initiative was the latest in a series of attempts in recent decades to reach a compromise on the thorny issue of conversion that would be acceptable to the majority of Jews around the world.

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