Israeli Government to High Court: Only Orthodox Conversions Count

Maya Gabai considers herself a Jew. Last week, the 25-year-old Romanian celebrated her conversion under the auspices of Israel’s Conservative movement. But this week Gabai, who has lived in Israel for six years, was miffed by an Israeli government opinion submitted to the High Court maintaining that only conversions overseen by official, state-sanctioned, Orthodox rabbinical courts should be honored. “I am 100 percent a Jew,” said Gabai, who married an Israeli man last year and plans to stay in Israel. “All this is about politics, not about what I feel.” In the latest battle over conversion in Israel, the state opinion was submitted in response to an appeal by a group of 15 foreigners wishing to have their Conservative or Reform conversions in Israel recognized by the state.

But the state, wary of foreigners in Israel converting en masse for the citizenship benefits that follow, said Nov. 17 that they would not recognize what they termed “private conversions”–conversions that are not overseen and approved by the Orthodox-run rabbinate.”The moment they convert everybody that comes, this contradicts the meaning of conversion because conversion should stem from a real desire to be a Jew, not a real desire to be an Israeli,” said Yochie Gnessin, who is representing the state in the case. Gnessin said the government’s position is intended to protect the integrity of Israel’s Law of Return, which gives Jews the automatic right to Israeli citizenship.

Last week’s government opinion was the latest salvo in a debate that has long roiled both Israel and the Diaspora. Non-Orthodox Jews, who represent the majority of Jews outside Israel, see the issue as a critical one in their efforts to gain acceptance by Israeli authorities. The Israeli courts have played an active role in the conversion controversy over the years. In 1989, the High Court ruled that Reform and Conservative conversions conducted overseas would be recognized in Israel. The High Court is expected to rule on the current case, which was filed in 1999, in the coming months. Reform and Conservative officials in Israel insist the move is just the latest government attempt to entrench the Orthodox monopoly on conversion.

Furthermore, they said the state is engaging in baseless scare tactics. There is no danger of their movements converting large numbers of foreign workers and tourists, they said, because both movements have pledged only to convert those who are legal residents of Israel and who have a genuine desire to become Jews and live their lives in Israel. “The state continues to pull out these excuses in order to keep up the Orthodox monopoly on conversions,” said Nicole Maor, a lawyer at the Reform movement’s Israel Action Center who is representing petitioners in the case. “These are just excuses to justify the desire, which the Supreme Court has said is illegal, to keep up the Orthodox monopoly.” Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel who is in charge of conversion in the country, told JTA he stood by the government opinion. He said that an Orthodox conversion is the only conversion considered valid according to halachah, or Jewish law. He said the Conservative and Reform movements do not do conversions according to halachah, “they do not know halachah, they themselves do not follow halachah.”

“Conversion is not a contract for renting an apartment or starting a business,” he said, adding that “conversion means accepting the mitzvot and it is important that a convert knows and observes them.” In a highly unusual development, the state’s opinion notes that Interior Minister Avraham Poraz has a dissenting opinion. Poraz, whose ministry oversees immigration, said he believes non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel should be recognized by the state. Poraz is concerned that the stringent conversion used by the Orthodox rabbinate seems to deter immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not halachically Jewish from attempting to convert. As many as 300,000 of the nearly 1 million immigrants who came to Israel in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union pay taxes and serve in the army, but can’t marry Jews in Israel or be buried in Jewish cemeteries.

“We think that many Jews in the world are Reform and Conservative and are no less Jewish than Orthodox Jews,” Tibi Rabinovic, Poraz’s chief of staff, told the JTA. “The government needs to take this into account.” Poraz is a member of the secular Shinui Party, which had great success in the most recent elections, running on a platform advocating a separation of synagogue and state. Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Conservative movement in Israel, said in response to the government filing: “I trust the court to reject this reply and declare that the Conservative and Reform conversions are equal to the Orthodox.” Bandel suggested that the government was motivated by political considerations, trying to maintain the status quo on conversion because Prime Minister Ariel Sharon needs the support of the religious parties to maintain his shaky coalition.

The government’s opinion marked “the latest episode on the ‘Who is a Jew’ controversy that for years dominated the agenda in Israel-Diaspora relations,” Bandel said. “We were hoping that finally the state would realize that any discrimination against non-Orthodox streams is unacceptable and illegal.”‘ Orthodox authorities say Jewish law requires that converts undergo traditional ritual conversion and commit to adhering to all the precepts of Jewish law, or halachah. Non-Orthodox streams contend that these authorities inevitably interpret halachah strictly as Orthodox observance. Bandel said the state’s opinion also takes advantage of the good will the Conservative and Reform movements tried to foster in 1998 when they agreed to the recommendations of a government commission on conversion, headed by then-Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman. The recommendations included the establishment of a joint institute for conversion taught by a combination of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis.

The liberal streams agreed that those wishing to convert would then go to a Beit Din, or Jewish law court, for an Orthodox ceremony that would be universally recognized. Orthodox representatives did not sign on to the final recommendation, but the conversion institute has since been established, with branches across the country. Currently, it serves 2,500 students and is funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the government. In agreeing to the conversion institute, Bandel said the movements were not giving up on their struggle to have their own conversions recognized eventually.

Dina Kraft is JTA’s news and features correspondent in Israel. Based in Tel Aviv, she covers a wide range of behind-the-headlines issues, including Israel-Diaspora affairs and economic and social trends. She comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where she worked for over six years, first in the Jerusalem bureau and then in the Johannesburg bureau covering southern Africa. She has reported from throughout Africa as well as Pakistan, Turkey and Jordan.


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