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Adoption Issue New Battleground for Divisive ‘who is a Jew’ Debate

December 4, 2003
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The Israeli government has 45 days to respond to a court challenge by the Reform movement questioning a policy that gives Orthodox families the exclusive right among Jews to adopt non-Jewish children born in Israel.

In the latest battleground in the emotionally charged Israeli debate over who is a Jew, the Reform movement says the policy discriminates against non-Orthodox families.

“This is about maintaining the monopoly of Orthodox conversion in Israel,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and one of the lawyers who submitted the petition to the Israel’s Supreme Court.

The questioning by Israel’s religious establishment of Reform and Conservative Jews’ legitimacy has caused a rift between Diaspora Jews — many of whom belong to the more liberal streams of Judaism — and Israel’s fervently Orthodox community, which dominates religious life in the Jewish state.

At a court hearing Wednesday, a panel of judges led by Chief Justice Aharon Barak said the government must explain the policy established by the state’s child welfare office.

A small number of non-Jewish children are adopted every year by Jewish families in Israel — 16 last year, the state said in its submissions to the court.

Most Israelis who adopt children do so overseas, a process that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. In contrast, adoptions in Israel — though limited and with a five-year waiting list — are free.

According to Israeli law, the adoptive family and the adopted child must be of the same religion.

The Social Affairs Ministry, which oversees the child welfare office, defended the policy, saying it was for the good of the child to be adopted by an Orthodox family. That way, the ministry argued, the child’s conversion would not be questioned later, at marriage, when the Rabbinate requires both partners to be Jewish to sanction the marriage.

Israel does not allow civil marriage. For Jewish marriages in Israel to be legally recognized, they must be performed by an Orthodox rabbi.

“Our job is to consider the welfare of the child,” said Nachum Iddo, spokesman for the Ministry of Social Affairs. “There is also the issue of the child’s identity card. The Ministry of Interior does not recognize a non-Orthodox conversion conducted within Israel as legitimate.”

“We don’t want problems later when the child will not understand why he is not registered as a Jew,” Iddo said. “We don’t want the child to go through that experience.”

Families involved in the adoption process stated in affidavits submitted by the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center that when they approached the Rabbinate about Orthodox conversions, they were told the conversions would remain valid only if the families maintained a kosher home, sent the child to Orthodox schools, observed the Sabbath and joined a synagogue.

“It is misguided and politically motivated and part and parcel of the ‘Who is a Jew’ debate, which does not want to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions for civil purposes,” Regev said.

The Reform movement argued in its petition that the policy is illegal not only because it allegedly discriminates against non-Orthodox families, but because it is inconsistent with previous Supreme Court rulings maintaining that the Rabbinate has no authority in the civil arena. Adoption, they argue, is a civil matter.

Sally Klein-Katz, who immigrated to Israel from New York in 1985 and later adopted two children in the United States, said she was outraged by the policy.

“As an adoptive parent, I think it is horrifying that someone might be refused access to being a parent” because of their level of religious observance, Klein-Katz said. “It gets to the basic issue in this country that we don’t have a separation of religion and state.”

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