Israeli High Court Urges Government to Enact Law Eliminating ‘nationality’ Status

Israel’s Supreme Court recommended today that the Government introduce legislation that would delete reference to “nationality” from the State’s population registers. If such legislation is passed, the court could avoid ruling in the controversial case of an Israeli naval officer, Lt. Commander Benjamin Shavit, who is suing to have his children registered as Jewish by nationality although their mother is non-Jewish and professes no religion. The Ministry of Interior had rejected Commander Shavit’s application, claiming that there can be no distinction between Jewish nationality and Jewish religion. The case was brought before the Supreme Court. Its landmark nature was demonstrated by the fact that nine of Israel’s 10 justices are hearing the case where normally three or sometimes five judges conduct hearings. The 10th justice disqualified himself in order to avoid a tie decision.

Since the State of Israel was established it has defined “nationality” as a concept distinct from citizenship. As a result, the nationality of Israelis has been registered as Jew. or Arab, or English, or Greek, etc. even though all of the registrants are Israeli citizens.

Justice Shimon Agranat, the American-born president of the Supreme Court, suggested to the Attorney General, who is appearing in the case on behalf of the Government, that suitable legislation be introduced which would align Israel with most Western countries where nationality and citizenship are equated in law. If the Cabinet decides not to introduce such legislation, the Supreme Court will rule in Commander Shavit’s case.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency learned from circles close to the Orthodox National Religious Party that the party “probably” would not oppose such legislation. There are other Orthodox parties in Israel to the right of the NRP.

In a related development, the presidents of the Beit Din – rabbinical courts – met here yesterday and adopted a resolution protesting the Supreme Court’s intervention in cases which they claim are the domain of rabbinical courts. The case of Commander Shavit which seeks to determine “who is a Jew” was given as one example in the resolution. Another was a recent Supreme Court ruling that a rabbinical court could not determine the amount of support payable to the child of a separated couple. The meeting of rabbinical court presidents was presided over by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Itzhak Nissim. The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Isser Untermann is not a member of the Beit Din because he has passed the statutory age limit.

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