The High Court of Justice heard a petition by non-Orthodox Jewish movements on Sunday requesting that the state grant citizenship to anyone who converted in Israel under their auspices The convoluted and contentious issue of state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel has a long history, but this is the first hearing in eight years on this particular case.

The Interior Ministry would register non-Orthodox converts who converted to Judaism abroad and grant them citizenship rights under the Law of Return, but will not grant citizenship to non-Orthodox converts who convert in Israel.

However, the Reform Movement in Israel and the Conservative Movement argue that High Court rulings from 2002, 2004 and 2005 mean that there is no legal basis for the state to refuse to grant such converts citizenship.

In the last five years, there have been approximately 1,500 people who converted through the non-Orthodox movements, of whom 1,300 were already citizens and 200 had temporary visas granted for family reunification or similar reasons, such as for a non-Orthodox convert who married an Israeli citizen.

A petition was filed with the High Court in late 2005 on behalf of five petitioners who had undergone non-Orthodox conversion in Israel, requesting that the state recognize their rights to citizenship, with several other petitioners subsequently joining the suit – there are currently nine plaintiffs.

The state’s contention for not recognizing non-Orthodox conversions done in Israel is that the process could be abused by foreign workers from less developed countries seeking to gain citizenship.

The state-attorney pointed to the Interior Ministry’s refusal to recognize private Orthodox conversions performed by the rabbinical court of renowned haredi leader Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, due to concerns about abuse of conversion to gain citizenship, as proof that its stance against recognizing non-Orthodox conversions for the purposes of citizenship was principled.

Attorneys for the Reform movement argued, however, that the state’s refusal to recognize private Orthodox conversions is due to the fact the candidates do not go through the ministry’s special committee, whereas the non-Orthodox movements are proposing to be subject to just such a committee.

During Sunday’s hearing, Supreme Court Justice Uzi Fogelman asked whether or not the state would be willing to establish an oversight committee in conjunction with the non-Orthodox movements, as has been proposed, for examining requests to convert by non-Israeli and non-Orthodox, to prevent the abuse of conversion for the purposes of gaining citizenship.

The state-attorney said that in principle he believed the interior minister had agreed to discuss this option but argued that it was not relevant to the cases being heard in the current petition because of the wording of the Law of Return that says only that a Jew coming to Israel may gain citizenship.

Since non-Israelis who convert here do not fall into that category the Law of Return should not apply to them, the state claimed.

The non-Orthodox movements argued that such an interpretation goes against the spirit of the law and should not preclude a person who converted sincerely under their auspices from gaining citizenship, just as non-Orthodox converts from abroad can do.

And several justices questioned the logic of the state recognizing non-Orthodox conversions done abroad for the sake of citizenship but not those done in Israel.

“According to this approach, what this person needs to do is leave Israel for two or three years and then return, and then you won’t have any claim?” asked Justice Neal Hendel.

Director of the Conservative Movement Yizhar Hess said the state’s position was hard to fathom.

“It is trying in an obsessive manner to find a reason to harm and abolish non-Orthodox conversions,” Hess said.

“We have declared more than once that we would be happy to have state oversight of the Conservative Movement’s conversion program or even a state framework for non-Orthodox conversion, but the Interior Ministry is simply not interested in this and the shameful presentation in the court proves this well.

“With 1,001 excuses the ministry is trying to leave us on the other side of the fence and we call on the minister of the Interior and the Minister for Justice to call their officials to order and put an end to this farce that could be easily solved with a little good will.”

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