Israel Supreme Court Rejects Convert’s Application for Citizenship

The Israel Supreme Court rejected today, in a four to one ruling, the application of a Polish-born Jewish convert to Catholicism who applied for Israeli Jewish citizenship.

The petitioner was Oswald Rufeisen, who became a Carmelite monk in Poland as Father Daniel, and who emigrated to Israel. He now lives in a monastery in Haifa. He applied for citizenship under the Law of Return, which permits any Jew to become a citizen of Israel.

In rejecting the application, the Justices drew on Jewish religious law, Israeli law, Jewish history and Zionist principles to support their reasoning. Justice Moshe Silberg, president of the Court, spoke for the majority. He held that a convert was not a Jew under the Law of Return, and contended that this view was not a theocratic approach.

He said that, under Jewish religious law, a convert to another religion is a Jew-but that the rejection was based on the Law of Return as a secular law. With all its historical implications, that Law, as a national law, had to be interpreted “in accordance with current accepted concepts,” he said.

He held that “accepting a convert as a Jew” in Israel “would mean a distortion of Jewish history,” as well as an act of desecrating “the name and content of the term Jew.” The “common aspect” of all Jews, he said, was “that we cannot cut ourselves off from the historical past” and still remain a Jew.

“Whether religious, non-religious or anti-religious, all Jews are bound to the Jewish people’s heritage, ” he added and, on this basis, the answer to the question as to whether Rufeisen could be considered a Jew was “no.” He referred to the convert’s work in saving Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland and said this posed a “psychological difficulty.” But the insisted that the convert’s “personal merits” were not involved in the Judgment.

JUSTICE COHN GIVES HIS VIEWS AS HE LONE DISSENTER

The lone dissenter was Justice Haim Cohn, who held that the Law of Return should not be interpreted to permit rejection of a convert’s application and the “denial of his rights” as a Jew under that law. He said the law was meant to grant any person the right to declare himself a Jew wishing to return to his country, and that the Government’s argument that a convert ceased to be a Jew had no basis in law.

Justice Moshe Landau opposed the petition, even under the convert’s argument that Israel was not a theocratic state but the product of the Zionist movement. Accepting that argument, he held, “one must accept Herzl’s viewpoint in rejecting Zionist membership for a converted Jew.” He also held that the Law of Return was intended primarily for Jews outside of Israel and that for such Jews it was axiomatic that a convert alienated himself from the Jewish people by his conversion.

Justice Eliahu Mani stated he concurred without reservations with the views of Justices Silberg and Landau. Justice Zvi Berinson held he was “reluctantly bound” by the Law of Return to reject the petition despite the fact that he considered Father Daniel a Jew by every criterion, referring to the convert’s Zionist work as a youth, his persistence in considering himself a Jew after conversion, and his statement in applying in Poland for permission to migrate to Israel that he wanted to return to the land of his fathers.

However, Justice Berinson ruled, the Israel law of naturalization had a clause which stated that a person who in good faith declared himself a Jew should be so registered in Israel “unless he adopted another religion.”

A highlight of the ruling was the majority rejection of the Government’s thesis that the issue could not be divorced from Jewish religious law (Halacha) which holds religion and nationality as “indivisible in Judaism.” Justice Silberg wrote that the contemporary view on that issue, as expressed in the Law of Return, permitted only “a sharp and clear-cut no” to the argument by Rufeisen that he was a Jew by nationality.

NEXT STORY