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Court Backs Non-orthodox Converts, Limits Role of Non-orthodox Rabbis

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The “Who Is a Jew” issue suddenly and dramatically resurfaced Monday, when Israel’s highest court ruled that the Interior Ministry must register non-Orthodox converts as Jewish citizens.

Orthodox rabbis and politicians immediately called for new legislation that would reverse the court’s decision by specifying that those accepted as citizens under Israel’s Law of Return undergo Orthodox conversion.

The same Orthodox leaders welcomed a separate High Court of Justice ruling, also issued Monday, in which the justices flatly and unanimously rejected efforts by non-Orthodox rabbis to gain official status as marriage registrars in Israel.

The ruling, on a case pressed by the World Union for Progressive Judaism, reaffirms that marriages and other matters of personal status remain exclusively in the hands of Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

While that ruling is being seen as a setback for Reform and Conservative rabbis here, the decision on the status of converts is a major victory for non-Orthodox movements, who have fought efforts by the Orthodox establishment in Israel to invalidate their conversion processes.

The 4-1 decision in effect reaffirms the court’s earlier ruling in the case of Shoshana Miller, a Reform convert who in 1986 gained the right to be registered as a Jew on her nationality card.

In a summation of the majority decision, the court’s president, Justice Meir Shamgar, said Israel’s Interior Ministry had no right by law to investigate the type of conversion undergone by a prospective immigrant.

ONE JUDGE DISSENTED

A certificate of conversion issued by any Jewish community abroad should be satisfactory evidence for the issuance of an identity card, he said, provided there is no suspicion that it was fraudulent.

Joining Shamgar in the majority opinion were Justices Aharon Barak, Gabriel Bach and Moshe Beisky.

Summarizing his dissenting opinion, the court’s deputy president, Menachem Elon, argued that his colleagues’ definitions for conversion were too loosely applied. For instance, he asked, what constitutes a “Jewish community”?

In granting automatic Israeli citizenship, the Law of Return defines a Jew as “one born of a Jewish mother or converted.” Elon argued that the key word “converted” in the law ought to be interpreted according to the halachic norms that had prevailed in Judaism for thousands of years.

Among those norms for conversion is the immersion in a ritual bath, or mikveh, a ritual that Elon claimed many members of the Reform movement spurn.

Elon also noted that the Reform movement rejected the “born of a Jewish mother” criterion when it ruled several years ago to expand its definition of Jews to include children born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.

The justices’ full opinions will be issued at a later date.

In reaching their decision Monday, the justices considered some 10 separate cases on non-Orthodox conversion. Arguments were presented earlier this year.

Gail Moscovitz, a Reform convert who brought one of the appeals, told, army radio that the decision ended a two-year struggle in which her status as a Jew was in doubt. “Now I’m on both feet, I am Jewish and things are fine,” she said.

The Conservative movement in Israel issued a statement praising the ruling, as did Conservative and Reform groups in New York. But Orthodox leaders in Israel and the United States were quick to criticize the decision.

PARTIES MAY QUIT GOVERNMENT

Israel’s two chief rabbis, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliahu, said the High Court had “dodged the problem rather than seeking to resolve it.”

Political observers found it unlikely that Arye Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party would remain in the Cabinet as interior minister, if he would now have to register non-Orthodox converts as Jews.

Following the Shoshana Miller ruling in 1986, Interior Minister Yitzhak Peretz resigned rather than register Miller as a Jewish citizen.

Deri said he would consult with rabbinic authorities before issuing his official reaction to the ruling. But he told reporters he was “very sorry indeed” about the ruling, though “very pleased” about the court’s decision to bar Reform rabbis from officiating at marriages.

Saying the Likud party had “broken all of its promises to us,” Knesset minister Menachem Porush of Agudat Yisrael said his party would now have to contemplate leaving the unity coalition government in protest.

The predominantly Hasidic party holds a mere five seats in the Knesset and does not have a minister in the Cabinet.

Binyamin Begin, a Likud Knesset member, hinted he would seek support for legislation that would overhaul the process for issuing identity cards.

Religious Affairs Minister Zevulun Hammer said he would consult with his National Religious Party colleagues and with other Orthodox parties about introducing new citizenship legislation.

Hammer said those consultations would also include “interested parties” in the Diaspora.

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