‘who is Jew’ Issue Flares at Supreme Court Hearing

The fiercely controversial “Who is a Jew” issue flared anew Monday when it was disclosed at a Supreme Court hearing that the Orthodox-controlled Interior Ministry requires that the word “converted,” in parentheses, be printed next to the designation “Jewish” on the identity cards of all converts to Judaism in Israel.

The new regulation triggered angry responses from secular spokesmen who charged that the Interior Ministry was trying to introduce the Orthodox-inspired “Who is a Jew” amendment “through the back door.” Even some Orthodox rabbis regard the designation as objectionable and discriminatory against converts.

The Knesset will hold a full-scale debate on the issue Wednesday. Knesset Speaker Shlomo Hillel placed it on the agenda over objections by the Interior Ministry that the matter was sub judice and could not be discussed in parliamentary session. Hillel said Knesset members would be warned to steer clear of specific issues before the Supreme Court.

The case before the court concerns a recent American immigrant, Shoshana Miller, who was converted to Judaism in Colorado Springs, Colo. by a Reform rabbi and refused to undergo Orthodox conversion rites in Israel. The Interior Ministry has refused to register her as Jewish until her conversion is validated by the Orthodox Rabbinate. Miller is supported by the Reform movement in Israel.

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The Interior Ministry told the court that the identity card, though not in itself proof of halachic status, is prima facie evidence and is used as such by rabbis who register marriages. Therefore, according to the Ministry, the designation “converted” on the identity cards serves as a guide to the rabbis who would then have to make sure the conversion was satisfactory for halachic purposes.

Former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren termed the regulation a “spilling of the blood” of converts. In an interview Tuesday, he called attention to many Biblical and Talmudic prohibitions against discrimination. “It is against the Torah,” Goren said.

Goren, like most Orthodox rabbis, supports the “Who is a Jew” amendment to the Law of Return. The Law, passed shortly after the Israeli State was founded, entitles any Jew to receive Israeli citizenship immediately upon arrival in the country. It identifies a Jew as anyone “born of a Jewish mother or converted.” The amendment would add the words “according to halacha.”

It would thus allow the Orthodox Rabbinate to declare invalid conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. It has been fiercely opposed by the Reform and Conservative movements in the U.S. and Israel. The amendment has been introduced in the Knesset many times over the years and to date has always been defeated.

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