Israeli court tackles conversion issue

JERUSALEM, April 5 (JTA) — Israel’s Supreme Court is poised to resume deliberations on an issue that has long strained relations among Judaism’s religious streams — the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in the Jewish state.

A decision on whether the conversions are legitimate will bring to a head a debate that has for years divided Israel from the Diaspora, where most Jews belong to the liberal Jewish streams.

Five months ago, the high court delayed hearings on the issue to allow a government committee time to seek a compromise.

Although the committee, headed by Rabbi Michael Melchior, minister for Israeli society and world Jewish communities, has made some progress, no solution is expected that would pre-empt the April 11 return to court.

The committee has been working toward a “technical” solution under which the nationality clause in Israeli identity cards would be removed.

This would essentially mean that the State of Israel would no longer determine “Who Is a Jew.”

While Israeli Reform and Conservative rabbis support such a solution in principle, the position of the Orthodox establishment — which controls marriages, divorces and burials in the Jewish state — is less clear.

Members of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party have apparently made little effort to find a compromise solution through the Melchior Commission. Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen, Shas’ representative on the panel, rarely attends the sessions.

Meanwhile, the liberal streams are not assuming that the commission will reach a compromise and are planning to press ahead with their case in court, where it could take several months before the expanded panel of 11 judges issues what could be a precedent-setting decision.

The scope of the court case has been expanded significantly: Instead of just deciding the fate of two adopted children converted in a Conservative ceremony as babies, the Supreme Court has taken on another 49 cases of Reform converts.

These include cases of people who converted in Israel, as well as some who studied in Israel but converted abroad and were not recognized as Jews, even though Israel is legally bound to recognize conversions performed abroad by any of Judaism’s religious streams.

“This decision will have ramifications for many more converts,” said Sharon Tal, director of the legal department at the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. “With 11 justices deliberating the case, it will have far-reaching implications.”

Nevertheless, some government officials have not yet given up hope for a compromise in the framework of the Melchior Commission.

“Even if it goes back to the courts as scheduled on April 11, this is just the beginning of a discussion that could take a year,” said a source close to the committee, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We still hope to find a solution.”

Faced with a bitter dispute between his Shas and Meretz coalition partners, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is also hoping for a solution acceptable to all parties.

JTA has learned that Barak recently asked the Reform movement to consider delaying a return to court.

Itzik Sudri, spokesman for Shas, said his party has not yet decided how it will respond to the resumption of the conversion case.

“But there is no doubt that in a time like this, when religious-secular relations are high up in the headlines, these kind of things just raise tensions,” he said. “We certainly do not view positively the intervention of the Supreme Court in such matters.”

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement in Israel, said he would welcome a technical solution but only if there is no subsequent discrimination against non-Orthodox converts.

Bandel also said politics could conceivably come into play before the court convenes.

“I hope this will not be the case because everyone has to realize that enough is enough,” he said. “We have shown patience for the past five years and willingly agreed to postpone time and time again. Now it is time for justice to be done.”

Meanwhile, in the coming months, the first graduates of a joint conversion institute are expected to complete their studies.

A committee under the previous Israeli government of Benjamin Netnayahu proposed the institute as a partial solution to the conversion issue. Under that proposal, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform teachers prepare conversion candidates at such institutes, after which the conversions would be performed by Orthodox rabbis.

Although the non-Orthodox movements accepted the concept in principle, they said it did not solve the problem because the Orthodox rabbinate never agreed to convert graduates of the institute.

If the Orthodox rabbinate agrees to convert the graduates, the government will likely pressure the Reform and Conservative movements to consider such institutes as a partial solution to the conversion issue.

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