In the latest blow to the religious establishment, the High Court of Justice ruled on Thursday afternoon that non-Israeli nationals who convert in private Orthodox rabbinical courts conducted in Israel should be eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.
The landmark ruling amounts to de facto of recognition of private Orthodox conversions, and the state will likely have to register such converts as Jewish in the population registry.
The decision seems sure to unleash a fresh political conflict, with the haredi leadership already declaring that it will seek to circumvent the ruling through legislation, a step which will further destabilize a government already rocking from disagreements on issues of religion and state.
Thursday’s ruling joins another recent High Court decision allowing non-Orthodox converts the use of public mikvaot, along with the government’s agreement with the non-Orthodox movements to create a pluralist prayer section at the Western Wall, as another blow to the Orthodox establishment’s dominance over religious life in the country.
The ruling was made by a full panel of nine justices, presided over by Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, and awarded 8 to 1 in favor of the plaintiffs, three converts who converted through private Orthodox rabbinical courts in Israel.
The significance of the ruling is not so much in the implications for non-Israelis who convert in Israel, but for the legitimacy of non-state Orthodox conversions performed in the country in general.
It could also affect the eligibility of non-Orthodox converts in ceremonies conducted in Israel to gain the right to Israeli citizenship, something they are currently not granted.
The ITIM organization, which filed the petition with the court three years ago, hailed the ruling as a breakthrough for the recognition of private Orthodox converts as Jewish by the state, which has not been granted until now, and for possible future recognition by the Chief Rabbinate.
The religious establishment, however, denounced the ruling as gross interference of the court into religious matters, and destructive to the Chief Rabbinate, with Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef condemning it as “outrageous” and a step that would destroy the state’s conversion system.
UTJ leaders Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni declared immediately that they would demand legislation to “preserve the Jewish people” and protect the status quo on religious issues.
ITIM estimates that there were some 200 conversions a year through a small number of nonstate Orthodox rabbinical courts in Israel before 2015, including haredi courts, which conversion applicants approach for a variety of reasons.
Until now, anyone converting through these courts has not been afforded the right to citizenship under the Law of Return by the Interior Ministry, but Thursday’s ruling will change this situation.
Additionally, it seems inevitable that, through the force of the ruling, the Interior Ministry will have to register private Orthodox converts as Jewish in the Population Registry, which it has not done until now, since the ruling recognizes them as Jewish for the purposes of obtaining citizenship.
Its greatest and most significant impact is likely to be in the future, however, and regarding the general legitimacy of Orthodox non-state conversions, and the attitude of the Chief Rabbinate to such converts.
National-religious activists have for many years campaigned to make the state conversion system more accessible and effective, so as to increase conversion rates among the 300,000-strong community of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law, Halacha, and thereby prevent the phenomenon of Jewish intermarriage with people who would otherwise be halachicly non-Jewish.
Last year, however, a group of senior rabbis from the sector gave up on this campaign and established a new, non-state Orthodox conversion system, Giyur Kahalacha, to increase conversion rates among the FSU immigrants.
In the wake of Thursday’s ruling, these activists proclaimed that the decision represented a precedent which would pave the way for state recognition of Giyur Kahalacha converts, who already number more than 150 people.
ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber explained further that if these converts are registered as Jewish in the Interior Ministry, it will be increasingly difficult for the Chief Rabbinate to refuse to register them for marriage, since it will have to declare by what criteria it permits Jewish marriage.
Since Giyur Kahalacha is run by Orthodox rabbis with rabbinical ordination from the Chief Rabbinate, including Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, a senior and respected arbiter of Jewish law, it will be hard to create criteria that include state converts for marriage registration but not private Orthodox converts.
“This is a game changer for conversion in Israel, because it says black and white that the Chief Rabbinate does not have a monopoly on conversion in the Jewish state,” ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber said.
“This paves the way for hundreds of converts who converted through Giyur Kahalacha to be registered as full Jews in Israel.
Over the coming months we hope to engage both the government and the Chief Rabbinate to address how Giyur Kahlacha’s conversions can be recognized by it for the purposes of marriage.”
The Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah organization welcome the ruling and called on the government to formalize the standing of the private courts.
MK Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid), who battled fiercely for conversion reforms in the last government, called the decision “a day of celebration for the Jewish people,” and a strike against “extremism.”
“The High Court ruling recognizing conversions done through private courts is great news for the State of Israel, the fight against assimilation, and for those choosing not to convert through the alienating conversion courts of the Chief Rabbinate,” said the MK.
“It is important to emphasize that the High Court ruling is a direct result of the repeal of the conversion law that I passed in the previous Knesset, which was canceled in the blink of an eye, when the coalition agreements were signed.”
In their, ruling the High Court justices wrote that the state’s refusal to recognize private conversions for the purposes of citizenship under the Law of Return discriminated between those converting outside of Israel (who were already eligible for citizenship), in what are also clearly not state conversions, and those converting inside Israel.
They also argued against the state’s central contention that the State Conversion Authority alone can prevent the exploitation of the Law of Return, should someone with ulterior motives wish to convert in order to gain citizenship.
“Exploitation of the conversion process should be prevented,” Naor wrote. “But I do not think that this [the State Conversion Authority] is the only way to guarantee to the sincerity of a convert,” she continued, arguing that it is unreasonable for a convert, after an exhaustive conversion process through an Orthodox court and now living a religious life, to be denied the right to live in the Jewish state.
Yosef condemned the ruling as “outrageous,” and said that “pirate conversions,” in reference to private conversions, have no state supervision and therefore cannot be recognized by the state in any way.
“The State of Israel operates a state conversion system which works with appropriate standards and in a welcoming manner that is designed to provide a solution for the general population of the state. This [court] recognition will to all intents and purposes lead to the collapse of the State Conversion Authority,” the chief rabbi said.
Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of Shas also condemned the ruling, saying that “the High Court is trying to undermine the Jewish foundations of the state and is harming the state conversion system and the Chief Rabbinate.”
Litzman and Gafni also said the court had overstepped its boundaries and was destroying the Jewish character of the state.
“The High Court of Justice has recorded for itself in history the destruction of Judaism in the state,” the two men said in a joint statement.
“The Israeli public from the all sectors and communities sees the devious iniquities of the High Court justices as part of destructive course of the destruction of religion in Israel.
We will demand an amendment of the law through legislation to preserve the Jewish people and protect the status quo which has been customary for many years, in the sensitive field of conversions.”
Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan of Bayit Yehudi also criticized the ruling, saying that the court would not agree to the privatization of a state authority in any other realm other than the religious one.
“We returned to our land in order to build a state with state institutions, as opposed to the situation in our exile where every rabbi stood by himself,” said Ben-Dahan.
“It is strange that when it comes to halachic issues, it is possible to establish private rabbinical courts whose conversions the state will recognize. This is a severe ruling which undermines the foundations of the state.”