Israel's Next Religion and State Battle: Who Can Get a Free Circumcision?

Men who undergo Orthodox conversions are entitled to a free circumcision. Now, the country's Reform and Conservative movements demand the same, and Israel's top court will hear arguments on the sensitive issue

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Israel's High Court will soon have to decide on the issue
Israel's High Court will soon have to decide on the issueCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

A man who undergoes an Orthodox conversion in Israel through the state-run system is entitled to a free circumcision. But if he chooses a non-Orthodox path to Judaism, he will have to pay for the painful procedure that is a prerequisite for joining the Jewish people.

And it’s not cheap.

On Wednesday, Israel’s High Court of Justice will hear a petition from the Reform and Conservative movements demanding an end to such discrimination. They demand state funding for circumcisions performed on all converts in Israel – Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike.

The removal of the foreskin from the penis is traditionally performed on Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is also required of any man or boy converting to Judaism, regardless of denomination. In Israel, the procedure costs about 3,000 shekels ($930).

The petition against the state was submitted by the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, on behalf of the two denominations.

It is the latest development in a case that has been on hold for many years, in anticipation of a High Court ruling on the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel. A landmark ruling last March by the High Court of Justice recognized such non-Orthodox conversions for the purpose of the Law of Return, which determines who is eligible to immigrate to Israel.

Lawyers from the Israel Religious Action Center will argue that if Reform and Conservative conversions are recognized for the purpose of the Law of Return, the men who convert through these movements should be entitled to the same benefits as those who convert through the state-run Orthodox system. (Men who undergo Orthodox conversions privately in Israel must also pay for their circumcisions.)

The state will argue that the High Court ruling recognizing non-Orthodox conversions for the purpose of the Law of Return is not relevant to the funding of circumcision. It will also argue that conversions performed through the state-run system – which, unlike private conversions, are also recognized by the Chief Rabbinate for the purpose of marriage in Israel – enjoy special status and therefore cannot be compared to private conversions.

“It is regretful that even after the March 2021 ruling, which required the state to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions for the purpose of the Law of Return, the state insists on continuing with its discriminatory policy,” said Nicole Maor, the attorney for the Israel Religious Action Center handling the case.

“This blatant discrimination, which requires Reform and Conservative converts to pay out of pocket thousands of shekels for a ritual that symbolizes their entry into the Jewish people, while Orthodox converts through the state system get funding, must end immediately.”

The Reform and Conservative movements perform several hundred conversions a year in Israel. Men account for only a small minority of them – about 25. Ending discrimination in the funding of circumcision will therefore not cost the state very much, the movements will argue.

The Israel Religious Action Center first went to court in 2009 demanding state funding for circumcisions performed on Reform and Conservative converts. Several months later, the state and the movements agreed to put the case on hold until the High Court had ruled on whether Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel should be recognized under the Law of Return.

The March 2021 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 who were converted outside of Israel, regardless of their denomination, already enjoyed that right thanks to a previous court ruling.

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