Court Orders Ministry to Explain Its Policy on Jewish Status Cases

In a case pitting secular and religious laws against each other, the Supreme Court has ordered the Interior Ministry to explain within 45 days why it relies on the rabbinic courts to determine the Jewish status of immigrants.

The order came in response to a petition filed by the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, which claims that the Orthodox-controlled Interior Ministry and the rabbinic courts are exceeding their proper authority.

The petition also charges that the attorney general failed to exercise his authority to prevent the actions of the ministry and the religious courts.

The center’s petition was filed jointly with Yelena Mazibovksy, who immigrated here last year.

During the process of applying for citizenship, she was referred by the Interior Ministry’s population registry to the rabbinic courts to determine the authenticity of her claim to Judaism.

But according to Rabbi Uri Regev, the center’s director, the determination of Jewishness in the population registry is a civil and secular matter under Israeli law, over which the rabbinic courts have no jurisdiction.

He said the rabbinic courts have “incidental authority” over determining Jewish status only in certain matters. Questions about the legality of a marriage, for example, do fall under their jurisdiction.

RABBI CITES CIVIL-RELIGIOUS ‘COLLUSION’

But the Interior Ministry’s practice, he said, shows that there is “collusion by the civil and religious authorities to invest” the rabbinic courts “with powers that the legislation has never given them.”

Regev said he has been corresponding with Attorney General Yosef Harish for more than two years, trying to get him to stop the Interior Ministry’s practices, but has so far not received a satisfactory response.

What Regev terms “most infuriating” about the Interior Ministry’s current practice is that it apparently contravenes a 1991 ruling by the Supreme Court that the ministry “has no business referring immigrants to the rabbinic courts and the courts have no jurisdiction” over such matters.

In that case, the Interior Ministry referred to the rabbinic courts the case of an immigrant American Jewish couple wanting to register their adopted infant, who had undergone an Orthodox conversion in the United States.

The rabbinic courts deemed the couple insufficiently observant and rejected the conversion as illegitimate.

The Supreme Court, said Regev, has consistently ruled that the Law of Return and the population registry are civil matters that do not stem from halachah, or traditional Jewish law, and are not limited by halachic definitions of who is a Jew.

“Ours is not a petty petition dealing with formalities,” said Regev.

Rather it deals with the “denial of rights of new immigrants to be treated according to the intent of the law,” he said.

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