Court orders Israel to register non-Orthodox converts as Jews
LA Times on conversion
by Mary Curtius
Los Angeles Times
February 21, 2002
JERUSALEM -- Judaism's Reform and Conservative movements won a landmark legal victory Wednesday, as the Supreme Court ruled that the government must register as Jews Israeli citizens converted here by non-Orthodox rabbis.
Reform and Conservative Jews hailed the decision, handed down by an extended panel of 11 justices. Orthodox rabbis bitterly denounced it. Both sides agreed that the ruling would shape the destiny of the Jewish people.
"This is huge," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, a Jerusalem spokesman for North American Reform Jewry. "Now, finally, Israeli citizens living in Israel who have undergone Reform conversions will enjoy the same rights and standing as all other Israeli Jews." But Zevulun Orlev, a parliament member from the National Religious Party, likened the court's decision to "a terrorist attack on the [Jewish] people's unity." The court, Orlev said, "won big-time today. The Jewish people lost big-time."
Seven years ago, the high court ruled that Orthodox Judaism could not monopolize conversions in Israel. It said non-Orthodox converts who enter Israel under the Law of Return may be registered by the state as Jews. But successive governments ignored the court's decision, refusing to register as a Jew anyone converted by a Reform or Conservative rabbi.
Wednesday's ruling ordered the state to begin registering non-Orthodox converts and included those converted in Israel. But it did not resolve the larger issue of who is a Jew, which has been debated here for years.
It also left intact the Orthodox rabbinate's power to decide who is Jewish for purposes of marriage. Although non-Orthodox converts will now be listed as Jews on their national identity cards, those who wish to be married in Israel will still have to prove that they are Jewish according to Halakha, or Jewish law.
The Reform and Conservative movements, strong in the United States, have battled the Orthodox establishment here for years, often by filing lawsuits seeking recognition of their status as legitimate streams of Judaism.
The conversion issue took on new urgency after hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews--many of them not considered Jewish because they had non-Orthodox conversions--immigrated here. They will now have the option of registering here as Jews.
Natan Sharansky, leader of the Russian party Israel With Immigration, blamed the ultra-Orthodox for failing to work out a compromise that would have made it unnecessary for the court to rule.
"We must all think together of practical solutions for matters of religion and state, in order to avoid a situation in which, very soon, crucial issues will be determined by the high court and result in dividing the Jewish people at such a difficult time," Sharansky said in a statement.
"This is a real breakthrough for religious pluralism in Israel," said Nicole Maor, the attorney who represented the Religious Action Center, one of the organizations that petitioned the court to compel registration of non-Orthodox converts. The decision, Maor said, "is symbolic but also more than symbolic, because in Israel your identity is determined by your identity card."
Lawmakers from several ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox religious parties said they would seek to introduce legislation soon that would restore to the Orthodox rabbinate exclusive authority over conversions.
"I think this is a very grave decision, harboring disaster for the Jewish people," said Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, the third-largest party in Israel's parliament. "We must reach a decision as to whether we want to protect and preserve the Jewish people in the Jewish state or deteriorate into the same assimilation that is plaguing world Jewry."
Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Am Echad (One People), an ultra-Orthodox group in Jerusalem that seeks to explain the community's views to the outside world, said the decision will eventually render the meaning of Jewish identity in Israel meaningless.
"The name Jew has been significantly devalued," Rosenblum said. "Now, some rabbi who officiates at a wedding with a Baptist minister to marry a Jew and a Baptist will be able to determine who is a Jew."
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