Draft Legislation Approved Establishing Religious Criteria for Who is Jewish

The Cabinet today approved and sent to the Knesset draft legislation that will establish religious criteria as the only valid instrument for determining who is a Jew. The measure was worked out by a ministerial committee on legislative matters in line with last week’s Cabinet decision to amend the Law of Return so that the non-Jewish spouses and children of immigrants receive equal rights but cannot be registered as Jews.

The draft meets Orthodox demands to nullify last month’s Supreme Court ruling that persons may be Jewish by nationality even if they are not Jewish by religion. But it is almost certain to raise Orthodox hackles because it would accept conversions to Judaism performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. The bill that emerged from committee goes beyond the original Cabinet proposals by extending equal privileges to the grandchildren of mixed marriage immigrant families. It also stipulates that the registrar of population must accept the immigrant’s statements unless he has documentary or other valid proof that the statements are incorrect. This will place the burden of proof on the Ministry of Interior rather than on the migrant in cases where "Jewishness" is in doubt.

The Orthodox National Religious Party opposed the liberal elements in the amendment to the Law of Return. The Minister for Religious Affairs, Zerach Warhaftig who was a member of the ministerial committee that produced the draft tried to have them deleted. He also demanded that the bill affirm the exclusivity of the Orthodox rabbinate in matters of conversion but was rejected by his colleagues. According to Jewish religious law, a person is Jewish only if born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism. The Orthodox insist that only Orthodox rabbis are qualified to perform conversions and refuse to recognize conversions performed by rabbis of the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism.

In Israel, where Orthodoxy is the only officially recognized branch, the Chief Rabbinate alone decides who is qualified to perform conversions. But the vast majority of conversions to Judaism abroad are performed by Conservative or Reform rabbis. The proposed amendment to the Law of Return takes this into account and protects immigrants converted to Judaism abroad from being declared non-Jews on their arrival in Israel. The measure was passed by the Ministerial committee against negative votes by the NRP the leftist Mapam and the Independent Liberals which opposed it for entirely different reasons. Arye Dulcin, representing the liberal wing of Gahal (Herut-Liberal alignment) abstained.

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