Nine Israeli Supreme Court Justices Consider Relationship of Religion, Nationality

Nine justices of Israel’s 10-member Supreme Court took the bench today to deliberate on what may lead to a landmark decision on the question of whether Israeli nationality is inseparable from the Jewish religion. The fact that nine members of the High Court are participating is a precedent and reflects the great importance that the judiciary attaches to the case. Ordinarily only three judges and occasionally five hear individual cases. The 10th justice was absent in order to avoid a tie in case of a split decision.

The case was originally brought to the Supreme Court by Major Benjamin Shalit, a regular Army officer who is married to a non-Jewess of English and French descent. The Major had applied to the Ministry of Interior to register the couple’s two children, aged four and two, as Jews by nationality in the population registry. The ministry refused on the ground that the mother is not Jewish and therefore the children are not Jewish according to Jewish religious law. The ministry further claimed that Jewish nationality cannot be separated from the Jewish religion. The Minister of Interior, Moshe Shapiro, is a member of the Orthodox National Religious Party.

Major Shalit noted in his appeal that his wife’s family on both sides have been declared atheists for five generations and that her British papers carried the description “no religion.” He argued further that a person having a Jewish father and a mother who does not profess any other creed and who is brought up as a Jew is Jewish by ethnological definition.

His case was originally heard by a three-judge panel, which decided to refer it to a bench of five and the latter ruled that a case of such far-reaching implications in matters of principle should be heard by the full court.

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