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Parties Urge Interior Ministry Not to Circumvent Convert Ruling

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Israeli parties on the left and right have joined in urging the Interior Ministry not to circumvent the High Court of Justice ruling Monday that persons converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis have the right to be registered as Jewish citizens.

But Interior Minister Arye Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party declared that his ministry will no longer sign official identity cards that list Israelis as either Jews or Arabs.

Deri has instructed Orthodox registrars not to regard the ID cards as proof that a person is Jewish. As affirmed in a second court ruling Monday, the Orthodox rabbinate retains a monopoly on all matters of personal status, meaning that only Orthodox rabbis can issue birth, marriage, divorce and burial certificates.

Most of Israel’s political parties, with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael parties, were swift to reject Deri’s announcement. Even parties that agree on little else joined in condemning the Interior Ministry tactic.

Haim Ramon, head of the Labor party’s Knesset faction, called on Deri to obey the High Court ruling and not to resort to “administrative tricks” to circumvent it.

The dovish Shinui party called Deri’s maneuvers “unacceptable absurdity,” while the hawkish Tehiya party called them “brilliant but dirty” Tsomet, also on the political right, said they deserved the strongest condemnation.

Degel HaTorah, however, welcomed Deri’s move, saying it exposed the ID card as a document with no halachic, or Jewish legal, significance.

AGUDAH MAY LEAVE, BUT NOT SHAS

The only reaction from Likud was to criticize Agudat Yisrael for threatening to quit the coalition government over what a Likud spokesperson called a “narrow, sectarian issue.”

A spokesman for Agudah said Tuesday his party was “on the way out” of the government and that the party’s Council of Torah Sages would decide in the next few days.

Agudah’s Menachem Porush called on the other Orthodox parties to take a harder line on the court ruling, warning Tuesday that the decision would lead to two kinds of Jews — real Jews and “doubtful” Jews.

But the Shas party’s Council of Torah Sages had already met Monday night and decided there was no reason to leave the government now.

Agudah and Shas respectively hold five and six seats in the Knesset. And the National Religious Party, which is also in the government, holds five seats.

But even if all three pulled out, the Likud-Labor coalition would be able to govern with a comfortable majority. The Orthodox parties are no longer in a position to make or break a governing coalition as they were following November’s inconclusive elections.

The Interior Ministry’s refusal to yield to the spirit of the court ruling is expected to lead to a new round of legal battles, in which the courts will be asked to enforce Monday’s ruling and order the state to accept its own ID cards as valid.

Orthodox sources say that rabbinical courts and local council officials already pay scant attention to the ID cards. Instead, they invariably demand witnesses or corroborative evidence that applicants for marriage or birth licenses are Jews as defined by halacha.

POTENTIAL BATTLE OVER BURIALS

One legal battleground may be the graveyard. Jewish burials are also the sole legal domain of Orthodox hevrei kadisha, or burial societies.

The societies are now likely to pay little attention to the ID cards and may demand evidence of the deceased’s Jewishness before allowing internment in a Jewish cemetery. Observers foresee unsavory interrogations and delays in burials as a consequence.

The Orthodox establishment will also have to face the renewed wrath of Diaspora Jews, the majority of whom identify with the non-Orthodox denominations.

Amnon Rubinstein of Shinui, in a televised debate on the subject, said the Interior Ministry is “writing off the majority of U.S. Jewry, especially those who are the leaders of and main contributors” to the State of Israel Bonds Organization and the United Jewish Appeal.

These are the leaders, he said, who “form Israel’s major political allies and propagandists in America.”

Indeed, Deri’s actions angered one Diaspora leader enough to prompt him to demand the interior minister’s resignation.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, sent a telegram Tuesday to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir urging him “to order your minister to obey the court or to resign.”

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