Israel’s Supreme Court Hears Case of Convert Who Claims He is a Jew

The question of whether a Jew can remain a Jewish national after conversion to another faith was placed today before Israel’s Supreme Court for Judgment.

The specific case involves an order to the Israel Ministry of the Interior to show cause why Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return should not be granted to "Brother Daniel, " who, as Oswald Refeisen, converted to Christianity in 1942 in Poland. The plaintiff came to Israel in 1959 and now lives in a Carmelite monastery in Haifa.

Testimony indicated that the Ministry had been willing to grant him naturalization as an Israeli but he insisted that citizenship be given him specifically under the Law of Return. He contended that his "Jewish nationality" was not affected by his conversion. For nearly five hours, the five justices listened to arguments of the contending attorneys before a courtroom filled to capacity by an audience which included monks and nuns.

The State Attorney, quoting from rabbinical literature, Jewish historians, sociologists, Theodor Herzl’s writings and a vast file of other sources, contended that the apostate not only abandons the Jewish religion but also his people and hence separates himself from the Jewish people for whom, and only for whom, the Law of Return was enacted He said that the State of Israel could not tell the Jews of the world that a Jew who converted to Christianity remained a Jew from the point of view of belonging to the Jewish people. He contended that an apostate abandons his people’s heritage and excludes him self by the positive step of conversion.

The convert’s attorney argued that the term "Jew" does not mean identification of religion and nationality and that the Law of Return did not stipulate that the term "Jew" means one professing the Jewish religion. He added that the convert gave up his Polish citizenship and came to Israel because he felt himself to be a Jewish national. In 1948, the attorney said, the convert even wanted to take part in Israel’s War of Independence but was not permitted to do so by his Catholic order.

Refeisen comes from a Polish traditional Jewish family and has a brother in a kibbutz. He posed as a Christian during World War II and served as an interpreter in a Nazi SS unit, utilizing his post to save Jews and to work with the anti-Nazi underground. When he was discovered, he fled to a nearby nunnery where he spent sometime and became a convert. Later he joined a group of Russian partisans with whom he remained until the end of the war. He speaks a fluent Hebrew.

Indications were that it would be some time before the Supreme Court handed down a decision in the unique case.

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