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With Flip and then Flop, Minister Moves Toward Religious Revolution

July 2, 2003
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Israel this week moved a step closer to a religious revolution.

For the first time in the history of the Jewish state, there is a good chance that those who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements will receive automatic Israeli citizenship.

“I will inform the High Court of Justice that I will register every convert who wishes to do so as an Israeli citizen — regardless of whether his conversion took place in Israel or abroad, or whether it was an Orthodox or non-Orthodox conversion,” Israel’s interior minister, Avraham Poraz, told JTA.

Representatives of the liberal movements in the United States praise the possible change as a major step toward religious pluralism in Israel — while Orthodox leaders view it as one that would undermine the character of the Jewish state.

The statement by Poraz, a member of the secular Shinui Party, comes as an issue that long has been an open wound in relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry may soon be reopened.

Israel’s high court is slated to hand down a ruling soon in the case of an appeal by 18 Reform converts against previous interior ministers’ refusals to grant them Israeli citizenship.

In recent governments, interior ministers — who often belonged to the fervently Orthodox Shas Party — refused to register non-Orthodox converts who had converted in Israel, arguing that only Orthodox conversions supervised by the Chief Rabbinate should be legitimate in the Jewish state. However, they did recognize conversions performed overseas.

A high court ruling last year forced the Interior Ministry to register local converts as Jews in the national Population Administration — but the ministry usually refused to grant them Israeli citizenship.

When he was appointed earlier this year, many expected Poraz to change the policy — though until this week it seemed he had other plans.

Poraz originally said he wanted to separate the issue of conversions from citizenship, making citizenship decisions based on the applicant’s “contribution to society and identification with the Zionist movement, or on humanitarian grounds.”

That meant he wouldn’t grant automatic citizenship even to people who had undergone Orthodox conversions in Israel — but he would consider granting citizenship to non-Jews, such as sports stars, musicians or scientists, who had made significant contributions to Israeli life.

The idea infuriated leaders of all streams of Judaism.

“It is unacceptable that people will be recognized as Jews but will not have the right to live here,” Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, as the Reform movement is known, told JTA.

With Poraz’s about-face this week, the liberal movements are pleased once again.

“Israel is the state of all Jews, not just those who accept one particular interpretation,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York, who met with Poraz on June 25.

“I’m delighted that there is a growing number of Jews in Israel and in the leadership in Israel who are willing to help strengthen Jewish life by recognizing the diversity and the pluralism that is necessary,” said Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, also in New York.

Poraz’s shift came after pressure from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Israel’s attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein.

When Poraz announced his original intentions, Rubinstein wrote a sharply worded letter to Sharon, charging that Poraz’s new criteria would upset the customary conversion procedure and conceivably could allow more than 100,000 resident non-Jews — such as illegal foreign workers and their children — to receive Israeli citizenship.

Sharon reprimanded Poraz at a tense meeting last week.

“Israel is a Jewish state and it must remain such,” Sharon said. He insisted that only conversions approved in Israel by a rabbinical court under government supervision should grant Israeli citizenship to converts.

Poraz agreed that he would no longer withhold citizenship from converts — as long as the liberal movements’ converts were accepted as well.

Of course, not everyone is pleased with Poraz’s move.

“How you do a conversion to Judaism is governed by rules that have developed” over thousands of years, said Harvey Blitz, president of the U.S.-based Orthodox Union.

Orthodox conversions conform to those rules, while liberal conversions don’t, Blitz said.

“This looks to me like another effort by Poraz and Shinui to change the Jewish character of the state” and “create more friction with regard to the religious affairs in Israel,” Blitz said.

In Israel, the National Religious Party — which is in the government — and Shas — which is not — have remained quiet so far.

For his part, Poraz believes the NRP will not make waves.

“Don’t forget that we have plenty of spare parts to replace the NRP — in the Labor Party,” said Poraz, referring to Labor’s apparent willingness to back Sharon’s coalition if the NRP bolts the government over the issue.

In the meantime, everyone’s waiting for the court ruling to make the next move.

“The ball has returned to the High Court of Justice,”Regev said.

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