IV. “Who is a Jew” and Israel civil law
While the Orthodox parties had since 1948 pressed to incorporate Halacha into Israeli civil law, it was not until the defeat of the political left by the right in 1977 that they felt the winds of change in their favor. The first attempt to legislate Jewish identity according to Halacha was introduced in the Knesset in 1981. “Who is a Jew” drew immediate fire from Israel’s Reform Judaism movement:
Shoshana Miller was a Reform convert who arrived in Israel in 1985 and applied for he Teudat Zehut. The Orthodoxy-led Interior Ministry refused to recognize her as “Jewish” unless she also went through a Rabbinate approved conversion “according to Halacha." Miller appealed to the Supreme Court which decided in her favor. Further challenges by Reform converts to the Interior Ministry were similarly declined and were similarly supported by the Court, “according to the Miller precedent,” forcing the ministry to comply. But just “going along” with the Court ruling would have to be challenged. Later, when
“the Supreme Court, again citing the "Miller precedent," ruled that clerks in the Ministry of Interior were not entitled to question the status of new immigrants declaring themselves to be Jews… Interior Minister Aryeh Deri refused to sign identity cards for fear of being responsible for attesting to the Jewish identity of a non-Orthodox convert.” (emphasis added)
V. The Conversion Crisis of 2008
In May, 2008 “conversion according to Halacha” as practiced by the state’s Israeli Conversion Court (ICC), was challenged by the Chief Rabbinate’s Supreme Rabbinical Court for Appeals. According to the 50 page verdict by the three “appellate judges,”
"First, all conversions performed since 1999 by Rabbi Chaim Avior and Rabbi Chaim Drukman [of the ICC] must be disqualified; Second, conversions can be retroactively annulled for those who are not observant." (emphasis added)
By fiat anti-Zionist haredi rabbis supported by the Chief Rabbinate had thrown the identities of tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis into uncertainty, their lives into chaos.
Not only was this a direct challenge to religious Zionism, it also raised concern within the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), American Orthodoxy’s umbrella organization, a challenge to AMerican Orthodoxy continuing in the present:
“Orthodox rabbis have cast doubts on one another’s conversions, and the Israeli rabbinate has become steadily more selective even about accepting Orthodox converts who come from the Diaspora. But the idea of universally accepted conversions collapsed completely with a decision of Israel’s Supreme Rabbinic Court publicized in May. The panel of three judges upheld a lower court’s ruling that a woman who had converted 15 years ago—under state-sanctioned Orthodox auspices—was not Jewish, because she’s not currently living by Orthodox law.”
As if the actions of the Chief Rabbinate were not sufficiently callous regarding those threatened retroactively, the government of Ehud Olmert sided against the converts. Olmert even agreed with the Rabbinate and fired Rabbi Druckman. According to the prime minister’s office,
“Rabbi Drukman is nearing his 75th year and according to Civil Service regulations we are unable to extend his contract.”
This after the rabbi intended to retire after his last term and only agreed to remain as a personal favor to the prime minister!
According to National Religious Party Chairman MK Zevulun Orlev,
"The Prime Minister''s Office has stabbed the Religious Zionist establishment in the heart… Ousting Drukman will cause the complete disintegration of the friendly conversion establishment. This is a pyrrhic victory for the strict [anti-Zionist] ultra-Orthodox approach to conversion, which locks the door for all would-be proselytes.”
Four years later, on April 27, 2012, the Israel Supreme Court threw out the appellate court decision,
"The Rabbinical Court of Appeals rode roughshod over basic procedural rules and the principles of natural justice," wrote former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch in Tuesday''s verdict. "It demonstrated contempt for the special conversion courts, and above all, it hurt and did a shocking injustice to the petitioners and their children."
Unlike Begin, Olmerts decision was clearly limited to his immediate needs, to political expediency. Such side issues as the lives of those converts, or how the “court” decision or his support of the Rabbinate impacted the lives of legally converted Israelis, or how divisive this would be regarding the Diaspora were secondary to coalition stability. More than anything in recent memory Olmert typifies the drift away from both the ethos and the responsibilities of Zionism.
Two problems facing Israel-as-Zionist are clearly described above. 1. The continuing disregard by the tiny but disproportionately powerful anti-Zionist haredi bloc within Israel’s Orthodox establishment for Israeli responsibilities beyond their own narrow religious interests. Their influence as swing vote in coalition formation provides influence far beyond their proportion of Israel’s total population. 2. The failure of Israel’s secular politicians to understand the threat of radical Orthodoxy to the existence of Israel as a secular-democratic Zionist state.
If Israeli politicians fail to even appreciate this at-home threat, what surprise in their unthinking and passive support for radical Orthodoxy’s disregard for the welfare and survival of the Diaspora?