World Jewish Leaders Debate Israel Supreme Court Ruling on Who is a Jew
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World Jewish Leaders Debate Israel Supreme Court Ruling on Who is a Jew

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Israel’s chief rabbis and Orthodox political leaders will seek legislation to overturn a majority ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court last Friday which will allow Israelis to hold Jewish nationality without being Jewish by religion. The Cabinet will hold a special session on the issue next Thursday. Interior Minister Moshe Shapiro, who heads the Orthodox National Religious Party, said today that he would demand that the Cabinet initiate legislation to negate the court’s ruling. The narrow five-four court decision was rendered in the case of Lt. Commander Benjamin Shalit, an Israeli Naval officer who sued the Government to have his two children registered as Jewish although their Scottish-born mother is non-Jewish and professes no religion. According to halachah Jewish religious law, a person is Jewish only if born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism according to Orthodox religious rites.

This concept has been the basis of registering Israelis since the State was formed. The Supreme Court’s decision ordering the registrar of populations to ignore the halachic injunctions in the Shalit case was seen by the Orthodox as an attempt to separate Jews into categories of religion and nationality and thereby create a category of Jews no longer subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of halachic rule. Israelis, whether religiously observant or not, are governed by halachah in matters of personal status such as marriage and divorce. Halachah in Israel is administered exclusively by Orthodox rabbinical courts. The outcry against the Supreme Court’s ruling came mainly from Orthodox circles in Israel and abroad. The decision was denounced from the pulpits of most synagogues virtually all of which are Orthodox.

The Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, Isser Yehuda Untermann, claimed that the Court’s ruling confirmed the existence of “a destructive tendency” on the bench on the question of who is a Jew and was “in basic and fundamental contradiction to Jewish religious law and our sacred Torah.” The Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Itzhak Nissim, said the judgment was an attempt to distinguish between Jewish religion and nationality which are “indivisible.” He claimed that the ruling could lead to a situation where a person was considered a gentile abroad but a Jew in Israel. Another Orthodox leader, Dr. Zerach Warhaftig, the Minister for Religious Affairs, demanded in the Cabinet today to know what the Government’s stand was in the controversy. The Minister of Justice, Yacov Shimshon Shapiro outlined the court’s decision and its constitutional implications. Two Orthodox political factions, the Agudat Israel and the Poalei Agudat Israel, have already submitted private members’ bills to the Knesset which would overturn the court’s decision. Opinion was divided in political circles over how the Knesset would act. A majority appeared to believe that some sort of legislation would be adopted eventually that would preclude any distinction between Jewish nationality and religion. Minister-Without-Portfolio Victor Shemtov, of the Mapam faction said he did not believe the Cabinet would make any attempt to alter the majority decision of the Court.


The Court hearings were held by an unprecedented panel of nine justices, comprising all present members of the Supreme Court, which normally has ten members. There is a current vacancy caused by the resignation of Benjamin Halevy who was elected to the Knesset. The majority held that the Jewish religion was not identical with Jewish nationality and that an individual could belong to the “Jewish nation” without being a Jew by religion. The minority held that the “Jewish nation” could not be separated from the Jewish religion. Lt. Cmdr. Shalit said he could not comment on the ruling because he was on active duty. Attorney General Meir Shamgar. who argued the Government’s case, commented only that “the matter has now been removed to the political level.”

American Orthodox Jewish leaders denounced the Supreme Court ruling. Rabbi Norman Lamm, professor of Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, charged that the Court sacrificed the unity of Jewish people on altar of a provincial liberalism or less charitably on a sociopolitical expedience.” Rabbi Zev Segal, president of the Rabbinical Council of America called the ruling a glaring violation of halachah which could bring a “tragic rupture into relations between Jews in and outside Israel.” Leaders of Conservatives and Reform Judaism in America, which have no counterpart in Israel, with-held-comment. The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain said in a BBC interview Friday that he was concerned that the court decision might “drive a wedge” between Jews and would create difficulties in matters of personal status which are under the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts. Alderman Michael Fidler, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said he didn’t think that the Anglo-Jewish community would be affected by the court’s decision. He said British Jews would continue to adhere to religious law which holds that only the offspring of a Jewish mother is Jewish.

The Daily Telegraph quoted “diplomatic circles” in London as predicting that the Court’s ruling would encourage thousands of persons in Britain, America and Europe to emigrate to Israel. The paper said its sources thought that the decision was important to “Jews who have married people of other faiths.”

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