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Israel Supreme Court: Ruling on Conversions to Judaism Done Abroad

(March 31, 2005)

The Israeli High Court of Justice decided on March 31, 2005, to approve conversions in Reform and Conservative ceremonies conducted abroad for fifteen non-Israeli residents who asked to be recognized as Jews in accordance with the Law of Return. Previously, those who resided overseas and went through the entire conversion process overseas in a Reform or Conservative conversion were recognized as Jews and could immigrate to Israel under to Law of Return. The court now ruled that people already residing in Israel who undergo all but the final stage of conversion inside Israel and then go overseas for the conversion ceremony also would be recognized as Jews by the State.

The Israelis involved in this case were non-Jews who took yearlong, non-Orthodox study courses in Israel, then went abroad for the conversion ceremony. When they returned, they asked the Ministry of Interior to register them as Jews, but their request was rejected because they had not “integrated themselves” into the communities where they were converted.

The court ruled in favor of the petition in a 7-4 decision. The recognition of overseas conversions must not be limited just to those who wish to join the community that performed the conversion, the court held, it also must recognize conversions carried out according to the standards and traditions of a community to which an individual wishes to join.

The majority of the justices wrote that despite the establishment of the Ne'eman Commission to find a compromise solution between the Orthodox and the Reform and Conservative movements, there has still been no formal resolution of the problem and the court cannot rule in accordance with the recommendations of the committee that were never signed.

According to the decision, "We accept the fact that the misuse of overseas conversions must be prevented, but why exclude other Jewish movements, which the state also believes must be treated equally?"

The government, it said, was not authorized to rule that only conversions performed by one body, as suggested by the Ne'eman Commission, would be recognized by the Law of Return.

In the court's ruling, there was no address to the final question of whether non-Jews who convert in Reform or Conservative ceremonies inside Israel should be considered Jewish.

Non-Jews may convert to Judaism, but Orthodox rabbis usually insist that converts commit themselves to an observant lifestyle that few immigrants to Israel are willing to accept. In 1989, the High Court of Justice ruled that the Interior Ministry must register as a new immigrant in accordance with the Law of Return any foreigner who came to live in Israel after converting to Judaism abroad, whether the conversion was conducted by an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform rabbi.

Six years later, the court rejected the state's argument that according to a British Mandatory law, the Chief Rabbinate had sole authority over conversions. The decision was handed down in response to a request by a Brazilian woman living in Israel who had converted in Israel in a Reform ceremony and wanted to be classified as Jewish in the Population Registry (she was already an Israeli citizen by marriage.)

The court did not order the Interior Ministry to register the woman as a Jew, but indicated that according to the Law of Return, it would have to do so in the future unless the Knesset passed a new law.

To avert a coalition crisis with the haredi parties, the government prepared a bill declaring that the Chief Rabbinate had sole authority to recognize conversions. But the bill angered the Reform and Conservative communities abroad and their leaders threatened to severe their ties with Israel if it were approved. To avoid a political crisis in Israel or a rift with the Diaspora, the government established a committee headed by Ya'acov Ne'eman to seek a compromise between the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements. The committee failed to reach an agreement, although it produced an unsigned decision that was approved by the Knesset.

In the meantime, the Reform and Conservative movements continued to go to the courts to press for more gains. These actions included a demand by the Conservative movement to recognize their conversions of non-Jewish babies from abroad who were adopted by Israeli families, and a request from Israeli residents and citizens, who had been converted in Reform and Conservative ceremonies, to have their status changed to Jewish in the Population Registry.

These proceedings were suspended during the deliberations of the Ne'eman Committee. But in 2000, after being convinced that there was no more hope for a compromise or for the Knesset to pass a new law, the High Court resumed its deliberations and appointed a panel of 11 justices to decide the cases.

The court split the cases into two categories, dealing first with those of the Israeli citizens or residents who had been converted in non-Orthodox ceremonies (including the adopted babies) and wanted to be registered as Jews in the Population Registry. On February 19, 2002, the court ordered the Interior Ministry to register the petitioners as Jewish.

In an interim ruling handed down on May 31, 2004, the court rejected the state's argument that no foreigner who converted to Judaism while living in Israel, whether the conversion was Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, should be eligible for citizenship according to the Law of Return.

Sources: Jerusalem Post (March 31, 2005); Forward (April 8, 2005)