Israel Ignores High Court Ruling on non-Orthodox Conversions

Less than 4 percent of converts applying for citizenship under the Law of Return have been successful, even though a March ruling by the High Court of Justice said the state should recognize such conversions

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A Torah class for those converting to Judaism at the Beit Daniel Reform synagogue in north Tel Aviv.
A Torah class for those converting to Judaism at the Beit Daniel Reform synagogue in north Tel Aviv. Credit: Nir Keidar
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Israel’s High Court of Justice handed down a landmark decision last March recognizing conversions undertaken in Israel by the Reform and Conservative movements for the purpose of citizenship.

Yet of the nearly 80 non-Orthodox converts who have since applied for citizenship under the Law of Return, only three have been approved by the Interior Ministry.

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In almost all these cases, the converts were either married or had been married to Israelis and had moved to Israel from former Soviet bloc countries, Eastern Europe or South America.

The ruling was meant to ensure that Jews by choice who were converted in Israel by the non-Orthodox denominations would enjoy the same right to citizenship as Jews by birth. Jews by choice converted outside of Israel, regardless of their denominational affiliation, already enjoyed that right thanks to a previous court ruling.

Before converts can be approved for citizenship, they are required to undergo interviews at the Interior Ministry. In the case of this particular group, said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, the interviews took much longer than usual – on average, two-and-a-half to three hours. That compares with about an hour for applications submitted by the non-Orthodox movements before the High Court ruling.

The converts reported to him afterward that they felt their interviewers were trying to cast doubt on their sincerity, in some cases asking what they considered to be inappropriate questions. One woman, for example, was asked what she did when she visited the gravesite of her recently deceased husband.

“The slow-walking of the implementation of the conversion ruling, in complete indifference to what these people have been experiencing, shows that not only have things not changed for the better at the Interior Ministry under the new government, but that they are even getting worse,” he said, referring to the governing coalition that was sworn-in last June.

The High Court ruling, handed down on March 1, came in response to a petition filed back in 2005 by eight temporary residents who had been converted in Israel by the non-Orthodox movements. All eight of the petitioners obtained citizenship under the Law of Return soon after this year’s ruling.

Another group of about 30 temporary residents, all converted in Israel by either the Reform or Conservative movements, had applied for citizenship before the High Court ruling. Under a special arrangement, they were given permission to stay in the country until the decision was announced.

To date, only two members of this group have been approved for citizenship.

Another was rejected (the Israel Religious Action Center, an advocacy group, has appealed the decision), while all the others are waiting for word on whether they will be allowed to stay in the country. Most of them have already been interviewed.

Nearly 50 other converts applied for citizenship after the March ruling. Out of this group, only one convert has thus far been approved for citizenship, and barely a handful have been interviewed.

“Whether because of personnel constraints or other reasons I prefer not to think about, the simple fact is that the Interior Ministry is not implementing a High Court decision in a way that I would consider reasonable,” said Nicole Maor, an IRAC lawyer who is representing these converts.

Conservative convert Yosef Kibita. Credit: Sarah Nabaggala

‘Living in uncertainty’

The group of new applicants includes Yosef Kibita, a Jewish convert from Uganda whose case has drawn considerable attention in the progressive Jewish world. He is the only member of this group who converted after the High Court ruling and the first member of the Abayudaya community from eastern Africa to apply for citizenship in Israel.

Kibita converted to Judaism through the Conservative movement in 2008. Ten years later, while participating in a program run by the movement in Israel, he applied for citizenship under the Law of Return. His request was rejected by the Interior Ministry on the grounds that his conversion did not meet the required criteria.

In response, Kibita – together with the Conservative movement – petitioned the High Court.

In February, the court ruled in favor of the ministry, noting that Kibita was converted in 2008 – a year before the Abayudaya were accepted into the international Conservative-Masorti movement and before they obtained recognized status from the Jewish Agency.

Kibita’s visa was extended until the end of December, though, and the court recommended that in the meantime he convert again in a recognized Jewish community.

This he duly did: In April, Kibita underwent another conversion through the Conservative movement in Israel. It was the first conversion undertaken in the country by either of the non-Orthodox denominations since the High Court ruling.

In June, with his conversion certificate in hand, he traveled from his kibbutz in the Arava Desert to the Interior Ministry branch in Eilat and submitted a new request for citizenship. Not only has his request yet to be approved, he hasn’t even been invited for an interview.

With his visa about to expire, Kibita, 34, could face deportation within a matter of weeks. “I’m trying to be hopeful,” he said. “After all, I’ve been living in uncertainty for quite a few years now, so I’m used to it.”

Noting that time is running out, Maor – who runs the Legal Aid Center for Olim at IRAC – wrote to the Interior Ministry last week, urging quick action. “I have yet to hear back from them,” she said.

The Abayudaya, who do not have Jewish roots, embraced Judaism about 100 years ago. However, members of the community only began undergoing formal conversions about 20 years ago, with rabbis affiliated with the Conservative movement overseeing the bulk of these conversions. Most of the 2,000-strong community reside today in several villages in eastern Uganda, with a tiny number in Kenya.

24 hours after this report was first published, the Interior Ministry issued the following response:

“After the High Court ruled that non-Orthodox conversions must be recognized for the purpose of the Law of Return, we received a large number of applications for change of status. Reviewing these applications is a long and complicated process that requires us to determine whether certain criteria are fulfilled and whether the conversions were conducted properly. The process is the same for Orthodox and other types of conversions. The large number of applications and the need to review them thoroughly has created a backlog and that is why some are still pending a final decision.”

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