By Rabbi Andrew Sacks
Last evening Israel’s High Court (Bagatz) ruled that conversions performed in Israel through the Masorti and the Reform movements must be recognized by the state for the purpose of citizenship under the Law of Return. The petition for recognition was first served before the court in 2005 yet the case had dragged on as the court agreed one postponement after another.
Some may be thinking, “This is a great victory but what are the real-world implications?”
As most of our rabbis know, Under the Law of Return, any person converted abroad is allowed to make Aliyah and obtain citizenship. The law does not differentiate between those converted by Orthodox rabbis and those converted by Conservative and Reform rabbis so long as the conversion was performed in a “recognized Jewish community.” Of course, this does not obligate the Rabbinate to accept our Gerim as Jews.
The court had previously ruled that conversions performed in Israel, by the non-Orthodox denominations, for residents of the country (those with a Teudat Zehut) entitled the convert to be registered with the Interior Ministry as “Jewish”. The question of the right to citizenship remained unresolved.
Conversions performed in Israel for those lacking a Teudat Zehut led to neither registration as “Jewish” nor to citizenship. Thus, until now, we abstained from converting those without an Israeli ID or needed to send them abroad. This would include students and those here with work visas.
The ruling will not dramatically increase the number of conversions that we perform. It will, however, make the lives of some of our Gerim less complicated.
Scenario Number 1: Helga came to Israel from Norway, with a student visa, to work on a doctorate in Jewish thought. While here she attended a Masorti shul, spent Shabbatot and holidays with Jewish friends, became fluent in Hebrew, and inquired about joining the Jewish people. Conversion in Israel would leave her open to deportation upon completion of her academic studies as she did not have a Teudat Zehut. Thus, in cooperation with our Masorti Beit Din in Europe, Helga needed to travel to London to complete her conversion. Upon returning to Israel, and a subsequent waiting period of nine months, she became eligible for citizenship. Now, that trip to a Beit Din abroad will no longer be necessary.
Scenario Number 2: An intermarried couple from North America decided to make Aliyah. The husband, Jack, was Jewish and the wife, Jill, was not. Both received a Teudat Zehut (Jack as a Jew and Jill as partnered with a Jew). A year after making Aliyah Jill converted to Judaism through the Masorti movement. Jill then changed her registration in the Interior Ministry to “Jewish.” A year later Jack and Jill separated. Until yesterday’s ruling Jill was eligible for deportation. Her right to be in Israel was contingent upon her marital relationship with Jack. The fact that the State recognized her as Jewish did not mean that she was entitled to citizenship. That changed with yesterday’s court ruling.
The victory in court can be savored but need not be celebrated as a triumph over the Orthodox monopoly – although it is that too. It may be seen as moving Israel closer to the more inclusive Zionist reality for which we all strive.
Let us not sit on our laurels. The Hardei ministers, the Chief Rabbis, and many MKs have announced their determination to pass legislation that would undo the rights of our Gerim. The Likud party issued a statement saying that the decision “endangers the Law of Return, and by extension Israel’s foundation “as a Jewish and democratic state.” Interior Minister Arye Deri called the decision “wrong,” said it would cause “A severe rift among the Jewish people,” and vowed to “amend the law so that only conversion according to Jewish law will be recognized in the State of Israel.” Another Haredi MK said of a conversion he did not accept, “She is not Jewish and if someone marries her the father needs to sit shiva, rip his clothes and recite Kaddish.”
We can be proud of the work done by our colleagues to advance the cause of religious pluralism in Israel. Yet, we must be ever on guard to ensure that our rights, and those of our converts, are respected.
May we continue from strength to strength.