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Landmark Ruling by Israel’s High Court

A Supreme Court panel ruled unanimously Tuesday that the Interior Ministry may not inscribe the word “converted” on the identification card of a person converted to Judaism.

The decision, hailed in liberal and secular circles and angrily condemned by the Orthodox establishment is seen likely to revive the bitter debate over the Who is a Jew issue because it involved a conversion performed by a Reform rabbi in the U.S. The court ruling is considered a landmark because it makes clear the supremacy of civil law in Israel.

The ruling was handed down by a panel of three justices — Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, Menahem Eylon and Miriam Ben-Porat. Eylon, in an addendum to the ruling, stated that the word “converted” on an identification card was contrary to religious law. A number of leading rabbis agreed with him on halachic grounds, though others have ruled differently.

A storm is centered on Interior Minister Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz of the Orthodox Shas Party whose resignation was demanded Tuesday by Orthodox leaders. The court acted on an appeal by Shoshana Miller against the Interior Ministry. Miller was converted to Judaism in 1982 by Rabbi David Klein of Colorado Springs, Colo., and immigrated to Israel three years later, claiming citizenship.

The Interior Ministry refused to register her as a Jew. But when she appealed to the Supreme Court last year, Peretz agreed to register her as a convert. He explained to the Knesset at the time that to register her simply as Jewish without the qualifying “converted” could mislead other citizens and officials as to her standing under Jewish law. But Miller continued to press her appeal.

ORTHODOX ESTABLISHMENT IS IRATE

The ire of the Orthodox establishment focussed on Peretz Tuesday for registering Miller as Jewish even with the qualification that she was a convert. Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapiro said in a statement Tuesday night that “The Chief Rabbinate opposed the (Peretz) proposal all along… in our view, a Reform conversion is just a joke because it does not require acceptance of mitzvot. It is impossible, indeed immoral, to accept such a convert whom a large part of the Jewish people does not accept as a Jew.”

Religious Affairs Minister Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party stated that the Orthodox position is that halacha, not secular law, must determine Jewish identity.

The Committee for the Purity of the People, an Orthodox group, insisted that Peretz resign because only conversions by Orthodox rabbis are valid in Israel. Political sources said Tuesday that Shas was not likely to leave the coalition government over the Miller case.

But other observes said it was difficult to imagine that Peretz could comply with the court order by endorsing Miller’s status as a Jew without qualification. Shas circles said the party’s Council of Torah Scholars would meet this week to decide the party’s position and specifically, what action Peretz should take. The Council is chaired by former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The secular Shinui Party called on Peretz to resign rather than consult with his party’s Torah sages. As a Minister in the government he is obliged to be guided by the high court, not by a body of religious scholars, Shinui said.

MORE TEST CASES BEING READIED

Meanwhile, the Progressive (Reform) movement in Israel said it would follow up its court victory by introducing six more test cases of converts denied registration as Jews.

Rabbi Moshe Zemer of the Progressive Movement hailed the court decision as “a stage in our struggle for recognition and full rights” in Israel. Miller told reporters after the court ruled in her favor that she had a “most difficult year, a real nightmare,” waiting for the decision. “I want to live here as a Jew, not as something else,” she said.

In addition to its ruling, the Court ordered the government to pay 2,500 Shekels (about $1,600) in legal expenses.

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