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Interior Minister Would Deny Visas to Non-orthodox Converts

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The Orthodox-controlled Interior Ministry is effectively denying immigrant status to Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism, though it insists it has not instituted a new policy.

The potentially explosive action came to light in a statement by Interior Minister Arye Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, read to the High Court of Justice Monday. The statement was addressed to Attorney General Yosef Harish.

He said the ministry’s aversion to registering non-Orthodox converts as Jews would henceforth be extended to the issuance of immigrant visas to such converts.

Some observers see that as tantamount to implementing the “Who Is a Jew?” amendment to the Law of Return, long demanded by the ultra-Orthodox, but consistently rejected by the Knesset.

But Benny Ya’ari, the Interior Ministry’s deputy legal adviser, denied that Deri’s statement represented a new policy.

He said it meat only that ministry officials are now referring converts to rabbinical courts as a matter of “friendly advice.”

“Our officials are not knowledgeable about Jewish communities around the world, so as a matter of friendly advice we refer converts to those who know about Jewish communities around the world — the local rabbinical courts,” Ya’ari said.

He admitted it is virtually unthinkable that a rabbinical court would validate a non-Orthodox conversion certificate.

NOT A NEW POLICY

He denied that Deri started a new policy when he took office as interior minister. But when an official has doubts about a document, he can refuse to accept it, Ya’ari said.

The legal adviser pointed out that the former interior minister, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, also of the Shas party, had told the Knesset and the High Court that non-Orthodox converts were allowed to enter Israel under the Law of Return, even though he was unwilling to register them as Jews.

Ya’ari replied that “virtually all” of those converts were spouses of Jews who were automatically covered by the Law of Return.

He maintained that Shoshana Miller, an unmarried American woman converted by a Reform rabbi, was never given immigrant status and remained a temporary resident as long as she was in Israel.

The Miller case was the first in which the Interior Ministry refused to abide by a court order to register a convert as a Jewish. Peretz, who was minister at the time, resigned rather than comply.

But Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center here, stated flatly that Miller “was given an Aleph/1 (immigrant) visa at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco and given a teudat oleh” (immigrant’s certificate) when she arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport.

He added that another Reform convert, Alicia Oren, was given a visa under the Law of Return by the Israeli Consulate in Argentina as the wife of a Jew.

Following a protest, however, she was given an immigrant’s visa as a Jew, Regev said.

“There has never been any question in the past concerning immigrants’ visas for non-Orthodox converts,” Regev said.

The High Court is presently considering petitions for and against the registration of several non-Orthodox converts as Jews.

Ya’ari’s explanation of Deri’s remarks did not appear to comfort the editors of the Jerusalem Post. In an editorial Wednesday, they attacked the “brazenness” of the interior minister’s statement.

“At one fell administrative swoop, the interior minister, true not to his duty to observe the law but to his religious convictions, has seemingly achieved what the religious parties have for years failed to secure by means of orderly legislation,” the paper said.

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